Yet Another Man Exonerated Of A Crime That Probably Didn't Even Happen
Harold Staten spent nearly 40 years in prison.
Harold Staten, 71, was released from prison this week after serving almost 40 years for a crime that never even happened.
Staten was convicted in 1986 of having set a fire that killed a Philadelphia man, based exclusively on extremely outdated evidence and the frequently conflicting testimonies of a coked-up 17-year-old girl.
At the time, prosecutors claimed that Staten’s motive was that he and the man who lived in the house, Charles Harris, had recently had an argument about bug spray. Initially, the 17-year-old girl said she didn’t see Staten anywhere around the house before the fire, but she later changed her mind and said that she did. She also admitted to being on cocaine at the time. Later, the girl’s roommate testified that she was severely intoxicated.
“Current fire investigations rely on a modern understanding of fire dynamics and the scientific method — all of which was absent from the investigation in this case," Assistant District Attorney Carrie Wood said, according to ABC News. "A review of Mr. Staten’s conviction, which included a report from a former ATF Special Agent and Certified Fire Investigator, led us to conclude that there is little credible information that could stand up his murder conviction today."
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This is true. For decades, “arson investigators” (who, by the way, are not scientists but rather firefighters who are trained by other firefighter arson investigators) wrongly insisted that the following things (among many others) were definitive proof that a fire was arson and not an accident.
1) Burn patterns, or “pour” patterns on the floor.
2) Spalling of concrete.
3) “Alligatoring” or “checkering” of wood surfaces.
4) Crazed glass in windows.
5) Location and depth of char.
6) Holes burned in the floor.
7) Melted or annealed metal.
What was not understood at the time was the phenomenon of “flashover”. Flashover is when the temperature at the ceiling in a room (with a fire in it) reaches a level sufficient to cause spontaneous combustion of everything in the room. Once flashover has occurred, all of the above “rules of thumb” are meaningless.
One of the most upsetting things about this release is that it took so damn long to get him out even though we’ve known for years that the evidence once used by arson investigators to prove that a fire was set on purpose is not, in fact, evidence of that at all.
February 17 of this year will mark the 20 year anniversary of the state of Texas killing Cameron Todd Willingham, who was wrongly convicted of setting his house on fire and killing his three young daughters. His conviction, too, was based on the deeply flawed testimony of an an “arson investigator” who swore that the fire could not have happened by accident.
At the time, multiple experts came forward to say that the evidence used to convict him was outdated and that he was clearly innocent, but Texas — and more specifically Texas then-Governor Rick Perry — didn’t want to hear it and killed him anyway. By 2009, the Chicago Tribune (not exactly the most left-leaning paper on earth) reported that nine of the nation’s top fire scientists had looked into the case and determined that there was absolutely no evidence that Willingham set the fire.
By the way, don’t go thinking Texas has learned its lesson on this — the Supreme Court gave them permission last October to go ahead with the execution of Robert Roberson, an autistic man convicted of “shaken baby syndrome” based on criteria we have known for years is not proof that anyone shook a baby to death.
But given what we know about Willingham’s case and a number of other arson convictions that turned out to be erroneous, it is appalling that Staten remained incarcerated for this long.
There should be a law in every state that allows for the immediate release of prisoners whose convictions were based on junk science that has been thoroughly disproven. It is astounding that there is not.
Thankfully, this past December, some tweaks to Federal Rule of Evidence 702 — which relates to expert testimony — went into effect. Tweaks that are meant to cut down on junk-science-based convictions.
The amended rule now says lawyers must prove to a court that “it is more likely than not” that the expert testimony should be admitted under earlier set standards, which include whether the testimony is “based on sufficient facts or data” and “will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.”
The amendment also clarifies one of those standards. It now says courts should find it more likely than not that “the expert’s opinion reflects a reliable application of” principles and methods relevant to the facts of a case, after earlier calling for the expert to have “reliably applied” them.
The committee note says the changes do not create “any new, specific procedures” but are “simply intended to clarify” that courts should be determining whether expert testimony is admissible.
I’d like to see something even more strict — including full-on bans on fiber evidence, blood spatter evidence, bite mark evidence and other forensic pseudoscience altogether, but I’m not holding my breath. Clearly, we’re not too keen on learning from our mistakes.
It is wonderful that Harold Staten has been released, but it is absolutely heartbreaking that he had to spend the last 40 years of his life behind bars for a crime that almost definitely never even happened.