True crime enthusiasts have long known that there are serious flaws in the institutions meant to keep society safe and functional.
The latest season of the podcast Serial, for instance, exposes the many bureaucratic complexities, human errors and clear bias of the American justice system as seen through a year's coverage of a single courthouse in Cleveland. Edward Humes, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, broadens this kind of criticism further, exploring the issues of expert testimony and junk science in his new book, Burned: A Story of Murder and the Crime that Wasn't.
Humes' investigation centers on a single event. But first, an introduction to the main, largely voiceless character is necessary. Jo Ann Parks was raped when she was a teenager by an adult member of her church congregation. When the child conceived in that rape, David, was born, Parks was pressured to give him up. He died soon after being placed with a foster family. Later, she married — and had three children with — an older man who abused her both physically and verbally.
One tragic night in 1989, those children died in a house fire; Parks, awoken by the heat and flames, rushed out to get help from the neighbors. Her husband, Ron, was at work. At the scene of the fire, at least one police officer told Parks firmly that her children would be all right, so she agreed to go to the station to give a statement. All three children were found dead in the house. More than two years after that night, Jo Ann Parks was arrested for what police decided was the murder of her children, Ronnie Jr., Ro Ann and Jessica Parks.
Parks' history of trauma is relevant to this story because her character was smeared during her trial. Also, the jury that eventually convicted her admitted that in addition to trusting fire investigators' testimony, they didn't believe that a mother who loved her children would leave the scene, or talk to the press, or try to sue the landlord for negligence later (there weren't fire alarms installed in the house, though legally there should have been).
Yet Humes tells us the reason the fire was even suspected to be arson in the first place was a phone call police received from Kathy Dodge, an irate former neighbor and ex-friend of Parks. Dodge claimed the fire was deliberate because she'd heard Parks musing about how much money she could get if her youngest daughter had died in a previous house fire. Additionally, Dodge claimed that she'd seen Parks dose her kids with cough syrup. And so the police began to look at Parks as a suspect, rather than a victim, even though Dodge's statements changed every time they spoke to her, to the point where she was removed from the witness list at trial.
Years later, lawyer Raquel Cohen of the California Innocence Project has taken up Parks' case. In order to get Parks a new trial, Humes writes:
"Cohen had to grab the judge's attention with the big picture. She needed to offer a compelling narrative, a first act that portrayed the case not simply as a lone travesty of justice, but as just one dramatic example of a sweeping nationwide scandal of bad science and bad faith in desperate need of reform."
Here is where Humes turns to the broader implications of the expert testimony that helped convict Parks. Figuring out whether fires are accidental or not is a tricky business and relies, it turns out, less on science and more on received wisdom. Fire investigators largely learn from their mentors and replicate their methods. Much of the original fire investigation into the Parks house fire was deeply flawed: Pieces of evidence were tossed, assumptions were made that ignored eyewitness testimony of the fire's progress and, worst of all, the investigators knew, going in, that Parks had been accused of neglectful parenting and murder by an acquaintance.
Cohen and experts she called argue that expectation bias, the phenomenon wherein we see what we expect to see, was clearly present in that investigation. Furthermore, fire investigators who have been working with newer, more scientific methods claim that it's impossible to tell how the fire started in the Parks house, especially with evidence that was thrown out untested and grainy photos of the scene, and as such, there is no way to prove that a crime even occurred in the first place.
With tangents into the mass of forensic science that has been debunked even as it's simultaneously still trusted due to judicial precedent, Burned raises question after troubling question and points out the frustrating subjectivity and fearful power of damning narratives that make up the ponderous process of criminal justice.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, book critic, essayist, and editor for hire. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.