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Posted on July 6th, 2012, by

The controversy of arson investigation: the problem of identifying arson and lack of evidence

Basically, the fire investigation is extremely difficult and it is probably the most difficult of the forensic sciences to practice. It should be pointed out that, as a rule, it is extremely difficult to identify cases of arson and specialists should work carefully and investigate the fire thoroughly in order to reveal the truth about the fire and be able to define whether it was an ordinary fire or arson. In this respect, it is necessary to underline the fact that while defining the nature of fire, specialists may face a number of problems, which could solve only on the condition that they possess a wide range of knowledge and information about the fire. However, even when the case of a fire is investigated in details, there is practically always remain room for doubt and often question whether it was arson or not remains unanswered or, at any rate, it is rarely possible to prove one hundred percent the case of arson.

Nevertheless, the investigation of fire is essential condition and it proves beyond a doubt that it is necessary to conduct an investigation in case of fire in order to find out its causes Weisman, 1981:155). Obviously, there may be different causes of fire and it is quite natural that fire does not always need the direct interference of humans. There are a lot of cases of fires that were caused by natural reasons, such as lightening, for instance, or by reasons which did not imply some criminal act of an individual, for instance, problems with electricity, which could cause a fire (Brett, 2004). In such a situation, forensic detectives need to identify the original cause of a fire (Kocsis, 2006). This is exactly where the problem arises.

In fact, in spite of the significant scientific progress, introduction of new technologies and huge experience of the contemporary forensic detectives, it is still not always possible to definitely identify the cause of the fire. At this point, the problem is that a fire destroys evidences (Bushfire arson, 2004). Moreover, the situation is particularly difficult if the fire was not stopped in a possibly shorter term because it is impossible to waste time because the more time is lost the lesser evidences forensic detectives would be able to retrieve about the fire and its causes (Dean, 2005). In such a situation, fire investigators look at what is left behind after the fire and even slightly details may have significant impact on the investigation.

In this respect, it should be said that fire investigators should have a clear understanding of their goals and basic challenges they may have in their work. It is extremely important to maintain objectivity of fire investigators and specialists (Kocsis, 2006) recommend avoiding emotional conclusions, which are not based on factual evidences or logic but basically refer to the emotional sphere. On the other hand, it is also necessary to pay a lot of attention to the psychology of people while investigating fire because arson cases may be revealed on the basis of the analysis of the psychology of an offender who organized the arson (Dean, 2005).

In such a situation, the development of the clear definition of the concept of arson is particularly significant, because the more concrete the definition of the arson is the higher is the probability that there will be no arguments or controversies while investigating fire. In this respect, it should be pointed out that specialists (Kocsis, 2002) traditionally single out several elements of arson, which are accepted by the contemporary common law. First of all, it should be said that a fire could be recognized as arson if it is malicious (MacKenzie, D. L.; O’Neill, L.; Povitsky, W., 2006). What is meant here is the fact that arson implies that the offender that planned and organized the fire had some malicious purposes (Häkkänen, H.; Puolakka, P.; Santtila, P., 2003). For instance, the offender could target at the destruction of some evidences, such as documents that could be harmful for his/her professional career, or it could be just an attempt of insurance fraud, or, what is more, it could be an attempt of killing of another person or persons by means of arson.

Another element of arson is burning (Kocsis, 2002). Naturally, it is hardly possible to imagine arson without burning. It is important to underline that burning is probably the most important, but, at the same time, the most controversial element. On the one hand, burning actually provokes fire and leads to the destructions, which the offender actually targeted at, while, on the other hand, it is really difficult to prove the fact that the burning is intentional (Evaluation of interventions with arsonists and young firesetters, 2005). In other words, fire investigators may have substantial difficulties while proving that an offender really intended burning and really wanted to organize arson with some destructive purposes (Florsheim, P.; Behling, S.; South, M., 2004). At this point, it is possible to argue that a person, whose actions caused the fire and which could be qualified as burning, did not have any intentions to organize arson but, instead, he/she was innocent or even victim of his/her own actions (Florsheim, P.; Behling, S.; South, M., 2004). For instance, the use of some electric equipment may cause a fire and it is really difficult to distinguish whether a person that misused the equipment did want to organize the fire or probably he/she just did not know how to use the equipment or the equipment was simply out of order (Great Britain, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2003). This is the point where fire investigators should be particularly careful and attentive, because mistakes at this stage of the investigation are absolutely unacceptable. At any rate, the inability of fire investigators to distinguish between the intended burning and an accident will lead to absolutely contrasting results since on the basis of the investigation the guilt or innocence of an individual could be defined (Santtila, Pekka; Fritzon, Katarina; Tamelander, Anna Lena, 2004).

Furthermore, traditionally arson involved the element of dwelling (Kocsis, 2006). This means that fire could be defined as arson when it affected some dwelling and, thus, directly influenced people who were living there or nearby. However, in the course of time, such an attention to this element gradually decreased, especially with the development of industry and creation of constructions, which did not really have anything in common with dwelling but still were the subjects of arson (Soothill, Keith; Ackerley, Elizabeth; Francis, Brian, 2004). For instance, stores or warehouses could hardly be viewed as dwelling. Nevertheless, they could be subjects of arson, when competitors, for instance, want to cause substantial harms and destructions to their competitors. However, it is worth mentioning the fact that this element of arson is still the subject of discussions because supporters of the conservative definition of arson (Santtila, Pekka; Fritzon, Katarina; Tamelander, Anna Lena, 2003) tend to insist on the necessity of the inclusion of the element of dwelling in the definition of arson, while more liberal specialists argues that this element should not be taken into consideration in the present days (Soothill, Keith; Ackerley, Elizabeth; Francis, Brian, 2004).

Finally, one more element of arson is the organization of fire of another person (Doley, 2003a). To put it more precisely, this element of arson implies that an offender, who is actually responsible for arson, basically targets at the destruction of the property of another person or even his/her death caused by the fire (Prestemon, J. P.; Butry, D. T., 2005). However, this element is also widely criticized at the present moment. In this respect, it should be said that specialists (Doley, 2003a) argue that nowadays arson does not obligatory target at the destruction of the property of another person, for instance. Instead, there are a lot of cases when arson were used as tools of insurance frauds, when the property of individuals was burned down by its owners just to get the insurance and improve their financial position (Working together: How to set-up an arson task force, 2003).

At the same time, it should be said that there is practically always some room for arguments because the lack of evidence makes conclusions of experts not very reliable and convincing (Franklin, Glen A.; Pucci, Pamela S.; Arbabi, Samam, 2002). As a result, without evidence the conclusions of fire investigators may be argued or even denied in a way. In this respect, the qualification of investigators plays an extremely important role since they should possess the multi-disciplinary base of knowledge (Soothill, Keith; Ackerley, Elizabeth; Francis, Brian, 2004). What is meant here is the fact that they should be qualified specialists in different areas which are not always closely related to the fire science, such as electricity, explosives, etc. (Bomb and arson crimes among American gang members, 2004). For instance, they should know construction, electricity, vehicles, etc. in order to identify the cause of fire (Almond, L.; Duggan, L.; Shine, J., 2005). In fact, it is only having such a multi-disciplinary basis a fire investigator can investigate effectively the fire and arrive to the right conclusion concerning its cause.

Moreover, in addition to specific technological knowledge of fire investigators, they should also have a profound knowledge of human psychology in order to better understand reasons and motives of actions of people before, during and after the fire (Bouquard, 2004). This is extremely important because the behavior and psychology of people can reveal whether the fire was arson or not (Doley, 2003b). However, it is important to underline that even when the fact that human actions caused the fire is proved, it is still not enough to prove that it was arson. In fact, it is a very controversial question.

At first glance, when fire investigators have proved that the fire was caused by actions of an individual, it is still not always possible to estimate that it was arson. In such a situation, it is necessary to prove the individual’s will and intention to start the fire. Otherwise, the accusation of an individual of arson would be erroneous because an individual may cause a fire unconsciously or occasionally (Offender profiling, 2005). For instance, cases of  involvement in the organization of fire are not rare, but these are not cases of arson since children could just play and could not know that their game would cause a fire (Perrin-Wallqvist,  Norlander, Torsten, 2003).

Thus, it is possible to conclude that the fire investigation is a very complicated process that involves professional work of fire investigators who should have a multi-disciplinary basis, have technological and psychological knowledge, and be able to distinguish arson from an ordinary fire. The latter is often a subject of discussions because it is difficult to find the cause of fire when evidences are destroyed and it is even more difficult to prove the guilt of an individual that caused the fire.

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