Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist Humes (Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation, 2016, etc.) once again exposes a flawed American criminal justice system, this time with a new twist.
The twist involves a woman convicted of starting a fire that killed three young children in her family home. Jo Ann Parks remains in a California prison after 28 years, not yet exonerated even though the author mounts a strong case for her innocence. Humes builds on this single case to indict law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, jurors, and others involved in the process of convicting innocent men and women. Wrongful convictions for arson are especially egregious: If a fire starts accidentally instead of being intentionally set, no crime even occurred. The author clearly explains how traditionally trained arson investigators rely on “fire science,” which is not necessarily reliably scientific. However, in the Parks case and others, investigators often fall back on past training even if it has been discredited. In a number of asides, Humes documents instances of “junk science” accepted as evidence: bite marks, footprints, hair analysis, and the formerly “foolproof” analysis of fingerprints. Regarding the Parks case, the author eloquently explains how nonarson factors such as Parks’ unusual demeanor after the deaths of her children and her low social status influenced those involved in her conviction. The heroes of the book are the lawyers and law students affiliated with the California Innocence Project who agreed to study Parks’ claim of innocence. Their efforts to persuade prosecutors and judges that the arson conviction should be overturned initially led to hope, followed by crushing disappointment. Parks and her now-deceased husband are not sympathetic characters in real life, adding an amount of tension to a slight twinge of doubt that readers will experience while taking in the author’s copious evidence of innocence.
A useful addition to the popular literature on forensic science.