Are all drownings accidental? Are too many fires arson?

By Anna Sandiford 18/03/2013 1

What if not all drownings are accidental?  An ABC article asks this question and raises some interesting points about how investigators deal with bodies found on land and those found in water.

“Bodies found in water are treated very differently from bodies found on land, for example there is not a county in this country [USA] that would take a body in a field and drag it a couple hundred feet before they put it in a body bag and transport it out. It would never happen,” said investigator Andrea Zafares.   “What we have been teaching around the world is to treat a body with the exact same standards that you would treat a body on land; that requires training,” she said. What we can take from that is that bodies recovered from water will routinely be dragged before being bagged.

This is an interesting thought, particularly as New Zealand is surrounded by water and has many waterways.  There are well-documented ways to distinguish drownings from bodies being dumped in water (such as analysis of internal organs for the presence of diatoms) – although this doesn’t necessarily tell you if the person was deliberately drowned, only if the cause of death could have been drowning. Good scene examination and thorough recording from the scene to the time the body arrives at the mortuary will help investigators and experts identify the information of interest.  To my knowledge, New Zealand does not yet have a well-established and regularly used specialist team of experts who can advise on the best way to recover human remains from unusual settings (such as sand graves or water bodies); this job tends to be done by police officers whereas input from specialists should increase recovery of potential evidence.

What I also found interesting in the ABC article is the first line of the penultimate paragraph: “When there is a deadly fire, trained arson detectives are called in.” What’s interesting about that is that they have chosen to reference an are of investigation that has become very controversial in the past decade or so. Of all areas of forensic investigation, fires is one that has undergone very close scrutiny because many preconceived ideas about whether or not fires are arson have been successfully challenged; the case of Cameron Todd Willingham springs to mind, a case in which Mr Willingham was executed for arson (his children died in the fire) but since that time, the findings of the original fire investigators have been robustly challenged and called into question. The National Fire Protection Association reported that between 1999 and 2011 there was a national drop in the USA from approximately 15% to 8% of fires being identified as arson – this apparent drop seems attributed to better understanding of fire dynamics and that fires previously identified as arson are now being determined to be non-intentional. The figures for Massachussetts are more impressive: from 1984 to 2001, the number of structure fires ruled arson fell more than 70 percent, while total structure fires remained largely stable. In 1984, roughly 10,600 structures caught fire and investigators ruled 2,133 arson; in 2001, there were about 10,200 structure fires, of which 618 were ruled arson.

Water or fire – it pays to investigate as well as possible and to be aware that science develops and crime scene practices change. Nothing stays the same.

One Response to “Are all drownings accidental? Are too many fires arson?”

  • “trained arson detectives are called in” — Unfortunately, neither the quality of the student nor the training is required to be very high. In 1991, an high school diploma was not a requirement to attend the 1 week class to become a certified arson investigator. The materials presented have since been proven to be non-scientific and we now know that the majority of fires declared arson for the last 50 years, were not arson. Therefore the majority of people who were convicted of arson were likely innocent.