Forensic fire investigation
Forensic Access fire scientists are instructed variously by the defence, prosecution and Appeal bodies in criminal cases, and by insurance companies and private individuals in a wide variety of others. Such cases have included primary investigations of the scene, secondary ones - where other agencies have been there first, the examination of various items from the scene, and paper exercises involving reviewing the work of others from statements, reports, photographs and video tape recordings.
The majority of cases we deal with are from the defence where a common feature in many of them has been the inadequacy of the prosecution to provide robust scientific evidence. But other examples include:
- A fire in a secure, detached bungalow occupied by an elderly couple in the Midlands. The husband died, but his wife survived having recovered from severe smoke inhalation. The fire had been started deliberately; there were numerous firelighters scattered about the premises. The police investigation, such as it was, included the Scenes of Crime Officer taking hand swabs from the deceased which proved negative for the presence of hydrocarbons such as those that occur in firelighters. After several months the wife was charged with murder on the basis of the negative evidence from her husband. We were called in by the Defence at a late stage and were able to say that a negative result is only to be expected in such circumstances and was therefore meaningless. This was because the sort of chemicals that were being looked for on the hand swabs do not persist for very long - especially in warm atmospheres. They are volatile and simply evaporate away. In short, absence of evidence here was not evidence of absence. Counsel for the defence made short work of the position adopted by the prosecution's forensic scientist who had analysed the swabs. After the acquittal the Judge remarked that it was the most inept prosecution that he had experienced and that he would report the matter.
- A major fire in a 15 storey shopping complex in Hong Kong and where forty people died as a result. The issue here was where the fire had started - whether in one of the retail outlets, or the lift shaft which had been being renovated at the relevant time.
We were instructed by the solicitors acting for one retail outlet and who were the owner-occupiers of the lower floors where the fire had originated. We spent a week examining the scene and came down heavily in favour of an origin in the lift shaft. We concluded that the fire had been caused by welding debris igniting combustible materials inside it. The lift shaft acted as an efficient chimney and the development of the fire was also aided by the bamboo scaffolding in the shaft.
We spent three weeks at the 'Commission of Inquiry', listening to others and giving evidence ourselves. The Commission's findings - which were in line with ours, are in the public domain but there are many civil cases pending.
- A man was observed in the early hours of the morning, by police officers and others, walking along the 'North Circular' with his clothing on fire. The following day the police examined the scene and called in a forensic scientist to investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident. The scientist concluded that this was not a self inflicted fire. The victim subsequently died in hospital.
Some months later we were called upon by the police to give a 'second opinion' as to the cause of the fire and to comment on the overall investigation that had been carried out. We confirmed that the original findings of the police scientist had been sound and we concluded that the fire had been deliberate and that, in the circumstances, it could not have been accidental or self inflicted. Both the police scientist and ourselves gave evidence to this effect in the Coroner's Court. The Jury delivered a verdict of 'unlawful killing'. As a result of all this the case is now the subject of a thorough police investigation.
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