Andrew Babick, 48, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1995 for an arson double murder, has been given a new trial based upon unconfirmed canine alerts and unreliable forensic science.  Le’Daryus Fields, 3, and Le’Tonio Briggs, 2, were killed.  Michigan Innocence Clinic worked on Babick’s case.  New advancements in forensic science show that the fire could have been accidental.  The fire may have started on the porch from a cigarette and spread to the house through a flashover.

During the trial, the prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Mark Blumer, called three expert witnesses to testify about the cause of the fatal fire:  Jeff Austin, a canine handler, Wayne Etue, a Michigan State Police Fire Marshall Sergeant, and Joan Tuttle, a fire inspector.  All three testified that the fire was an arson and based those opinions on now discredited science used in thousands of convictions including perceived accelerant patterns, appearance of multiple points of origin, and canine alerts.

Canine handler Austin told the jury that his dog was “100 percent correct every time”.

David Smith testified during the appeals process on behalf of Babick.  Smith is a certified fire investigator with the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee for the last 22 years.  Fire investigation began in the early 90s with a movement toward science.  Smith stated that, “It would be many years – in some cases up to a decade or more before knowledge…would percolate down to the relevant investigative communities…”

At the time of the trial, the defense did consult with four expert witnesses who stated it was an arson.  Even during the early years of Babick’s appeals, arson expert witnesses told his appellate attorney, Pat O’Connell, that there was “no dispute it was arson”.

Babick and his lawyers did not become aware of scientific advancements in arson investigation until 2005.

The appeals court also notes that a “searching inquiry”, in other words, a judge determined whether an expert witness’ opinions are accurate and reliable, was not done.  There were not even any evidentiary hearings held before trial for admissibility.

The original prosecutor on the case, Blumer, stated that he believes that the same outcome will occur in the retrial.  He told the appellate court that he wouldn’t use “suspect” evidence if he had known, for example the canine alert evidence, but that there is “sufficient circumstantial evidence” to convict.

Smith issued his opinion as follows:  “In light of the state of knowledge and standard of care in the fire investigation profession today, there is simply no credible evidence that the fire…was intentionally set.”

The defense attorney at the trial, Alma Mason-Thurmer could not argue that the fire was not an arson due to the incorrect investigative techniques at the time and instead was forced to argue someone else set the fire.  She testified that had she known about the advances in science at the time she would have completely changed her trial strategy.

The appeals court concluded that it would order a new trial because:
1.  The prosecution admitted that it would have changed its approach and not used certain portions of evidence it used at trial.
2.  There are experts now available to rebut prosecution experts that were not available at the time.
3.  The only alleged witness to the defendant’s confession recanted her testimony during trial.
4.  “A different [verdict] is probable,” based upon the current understanding of arson science.

Advertisements

Join the Discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s