The following editorial was published by the Wisconsin State Journal on May 20, 2011.
It was for good reason that a State Journal special report published over four days this week was called "Burning Questions: Arson or Accident?"
The series — the result of a months-long investigation by reporter Dee J. Hall — triggered plenty of questions as it explored in detail the case of Joseph "Joey" Awe, convicted of arson in 2007 after his bar, J.J.'s Pub in Harrisville, about 65 miles north of Madison, was destroyed by fire in September 2006.
Beyond that case in Marquette County, the series examined the process of arson investigation in Wisconsin and the nation. The stories by Hall exposed the difficulty of determining the truth in fire investigations.
Among the most significant questions raised: Why do insurance companies — which can avoid thousands or even millions of dollars in losses if a policy holder is convicted of arson — often play a lead role in investigating fires?
Certainly, expertise is needed in fire investigations. And insurance companies are happy to hire such experts to work on their behalf, often supplementing or even supplanting other third-party investigators. Such a system seems fraught with peril, and easily invokes questions about vested interest on the part of the insurers.
Awe, who is appealing his conviction in U.S. District Court in Madison, is now serving a 12-year sentence, including three years in prison. His attorney argued at trial that the fire started due to electrical problems in the 130-year-old building. Prosecutors said they found evidence the fire was intentionally set. Part of the prosecution's case relied on methods that have been discredited by other fire investigators.
Another key to the prosecution's case invoked a form of logic known as "negative corpus," meaning, essentially, that once an investigator rules out all accidental causes, the only choice left is to rule the case arson. That logic should never be used for determining the cause of a fire, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Other parts of the Awe investigation also qualify as "burning questions," including the certainty about where the fire started.
The Awe case has brought needed scrutiny to the often misunderstood practice of arson investigation.
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen should follow the lead of other states — Texas, for example, recently adopted new recommendations on arson investigations — to clarify and improve accepted practices in fire investigations in Wisconsin.