Update McLeod in 1989 arson case

Prosecutors have recently filed a brief with the New Hampshire Supreme Court arguing for the admission of evidence they deem critical to their 1989 arson case against David McLeod that killed the Hina Family.

Earlier this year, the high court accepted a pretrial appeal from the N.H. Attorney General’s Office, which is asking it to overturn an order by Superior Court Judge Marguerite L. Wageling that prosecutors say would “seriously compromise” their ability to prove McLeod set the blaze.

Wageling ruled in September that the state’s three fire science experts cannot testify at trial that they believe fire was arson, because their findings included consideration of statements from a witness who died in 2005. That witness — Sandra Walker — lived in the second-floor apartment where officials said the Jan. 14, 1989, fire started. She described in interviews with police how she woke up to flames engulfing her small room and said at first she believed she may have fallen asleep with a lit cigarette, which she later recanted.”

In Wageling’s ruling on the motion, she wrote that because the experts’ opinions were not independent of Walker’s statements, they would not be allowed to testify. Federal fire investigators who analyzed photos of the fire concluded that char patterns in Walker’s apartment cannot be relied on because the apartment combusted in a “flashover” fire of intense heat.

Flashover has featured here on DCC before in the cases of WillinghamRichey, Dougherty, GavittHan Tak Lee and others.

In short, what we thought we knew about fire was wrong. We used to think that fire always went up and never down and that fire fueled by accelerants burned faster and hotter than other fires. We also always thought that crazed glass, V-patterns and certain black markings were evidence of pour patterns of accelerants hence arson. We were wrong. Now we know we are dealing with flashover.

Gavitt’s situation is similar to Willingham’s. Both opened a door and a surge of oxygen reached the fire in the house. It turned into a house on fire.

Richey’s case is similar to McLeod’s. In both, a burning or smouldering cigarette might have set on fire an ordinary household pieces that naturally contained combustible materials. In both cases the question is whether Richey or McLeod added any accelerants. In the case of Richey, the use of an accelerant was alleged but never proven.

The McLeod case bears watching as we have many more cases that should be checked for faulty arson detection.

To be continued!