In 1989, JoAnn Parks’ three young children died in a home fire in Bell; Parks escaped without saving them. The fire was thought to be accidental before Parks was arrested and, in 1993, convicted for setting the fires and murdering her children. Sentenced to life without parole, Parks remains in prison even though scientific advances (especially about burn patterns in something called flashover) have raised doubts, and a panel of experts argues that the fire was accidental and that Parks suffered the ultimate tragedy: losing her children then her freedom.
In “Burned,” Edward Humes analyzes the saga, blending the intimate narrative of Parks’ sad life with the work of the California Innocence Project lawyers striving to overturn the conviction. It’s a devastating exposé of deep flaws in forensic evidence and the justice system.
“This story is really compelling and it’s ambiguous,” Humes says. “No one has argued that JoAnn Parks was heroic or a model mom,” but he adds that the evidence against her has been proven false.
This is the 15th book for Humes, who won a Pulitzer Prize reporting on the military for the Orange County Register. Before writing about environmental issues in recent years, he penned numerous books about true crime, such as “Mean Justice,” set in Kern County. So he has long been skeptical about finding justice in the justice system, especially “about the ability of the system to separate real science from junk science, and expert witnesses who have real knowledge from ‘experts’ who have none.”
“Burned” investigates how junk science corrupts cases and how the system compounds problems. Humes’ scope includes the Innocence Project case of Bill Richards, imprisoned for murder because of a “bite mark” expert. Even after DNA proved Richards’ innocence and the expert admitted he had no scientific basis for his testimony, Richards languished in prison for eight years. An obstinate San Bernardino County district attorney successfully argued that an opinion could not be proven false so Richards had received a fair trial. He went free only after the California Legislature changed the law so that when expert testimony germane to a conviction proves incorrect, it can be declared false evidence, rendering the trial unfair. That law change empowered other cases, including the Parks one.
But Parks’ story remains in limbo. The book goes up to November, when a judge denied the latest petition for a new trial, saying that even if the Innocence Project had demonstrated there was false evidence about flashover at the original trial, he could not choose between competing scientific experts.
“Burned” grew out of the time you spent at the California Innocence Project. What brought you there?
Almost every day there’s a story in the news about an exoneration or a claim that someone should be exonerated, but there’s very little out there about how these places pick their cases. I wanted to learn how the process works. I went in on an idea hunt, I guess.
Here you have these gifted attorneys who will never make a lot of money and work insane hours. It’s clear from watching them they’re not looking to game the system but that they believe in those cases that an injustice was committed.
The Innocence Project is just inundated with requests from inmates or family members or people convinced that a wrong was done. It’s a very small operation. They sort through all that; they use volunteers, students. Some stories are absurd, almost comical; most are sad and desperate. Of their cases, JoAnn Parks’ was the one that most intrigued me.
Beyond the scientific errors involved in arson cases, fingerprints and bite marks, you also explore the impact of cognitive bias on investigations. How big an issue is that?
Cognitive bias as a cause of concern in the justice system was relatively new for me, and it hasn’t been litigated a great deal. People hear the word “bias” and assume it’s where you’re prejudiced against a group or political party, and it sounds like a deliberate act of bigotry. It’s a normal process of the human brain, a survival mechanism to detect patterns and anticipate events, which is a useful skill.
But when you have ambiguous patterns in a fire or with fingerprints of poor quality, it can morph into investigators finding what they expect to find, seeing a match that turns out not to exist because of something you already believe to be true.
In the Parks case, the initial fire investigator had no information about the people and their history. When other fire investigators had been thoroughly briefed about allegations of child neglect and abuse and a previous fire, they were seeing a different fire scene, finding things that indicated a deliberate fire. Does that mean they were suffering from a form of cognitive bias called expectation bias? Not necessarily, but there’s the possibility their findings were influenced by that.
Do changes need to be made to combat cognitive bias and mishandling of forensic evidence?
The system breaks down when one side controls an entire part of the process. Forensic scientists are almost always an arm of law enforcement, as we see in CSI. Fingerprint examiners and arson scene investigators are being briefed on aspects of the case that have nothing to do with their area of expertise or inquiry, so it becomes clear police really want this to match. That’s why there’s been case after case of forensic examiners getting it wrong; they were given information they didn’t need and that influenced them.
Some have argued that laboratory-based examinations should not be in control of law enforcement.
There’s no reason for one side to control all the umpires and pay them and have hiring and firing power. We would need deep and far-reaching change to fix this.
I think there’s gradation of reform that is possible. There are those who feel that crime scene investigators should be kept in the dark about irrelevant information. If you’re just examining the material in front of you, the knowledge about who may have done it or who the authorities want to prove did it doesn’t help you make an accurate fingerprint or burn-pattern analysis. And it can influence you. The justice system is in complete denial about this danger.
Do you think JoAnn Parks is in jail for a crime she didn’t commit?
I raise questions about the evidence against her, which I think is my duty as a journalist, but I explicitly say, ‘You’re not going to read here that she’s innocent.’ That’s a question I can’t answer. There’s no conclusive evidence of innocence. There can’t be.
The question is: Was there false evidence used against her? Now we know there was. The judge just said it wasn’t sufficient to release her, but that’s a matter of interpretation.
Do you think the majority of readers will come away believing there’s a person behind bars who shouldn’t be? Or is your job really just telling the story and explaining the problems of junk science and cognitive bias?
I guess the latter. There’s not great awareness of just how poorly the justice system deals with science, which has become critical in so many cases. And in cases where they find afterward that the scientific ideas and experts were wrong, there’s the question of what happens next: In a rational justice system every case with similar evidence would come under scrutiny, but it doesn’t work that way.
There are people still being prosecuted because of bite mark evidence and people still sitting in prison because of bite mark evidence. That’s appalling. The National Academy of Sciences has confirmed that there’s absolutely no science behind these bite mark cases.
And we have quite a large number of arson cases, not just high-profile murder cases but ones that will never be reopened, because someone was denied an insurance claim because the fire was suspicious. That’s thousands and thousands of cases where lives were affected by junk science. There’s no systematic mechanism for addressing that mass injustice.
Is there any effort to remedy this on a national or state level?
The Obama administration had initiated a national review of forensic science with an eye toward addressing this problem and creating best practices. That initiative was troubled but making progress. But it was ended by the current president. There are some state-by-state efforts — Texas is doing a lot of work — and some forensic professionals are advocating reform.
What’s the current status of Parks’ case?
The judge in Los Angeles Superior Court denied the habeas corpus petition in November. That decision is being appealed. The Innocence Project is raising money to try and re-create in a laboratory the Parks’ house fire. The idea is to show whether the prosecution’s scenario for what happened is even physically possible. It’s not cheap to re-create a fire and not the kind of money innocence projects have at their disposal. But it’s certainly something where I’d be interested in seeing the results.