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Defenses to the Crime of Arson

NCJ Number
M A Flair; J Grann; P J Harrington; T Harrison; M E Helm; P A Hernandez; P Hobbs; R J Hoffman; M Imhoff; R P Jones; M J Kearney; R A Larsen
Date Published
14 pages
To help arson investigators develop better cases, this paper reviews defenses commonly used by alleged arsonists and suggests methods to combat such tactics before the case comes to trial.
The extremely poor conviction rate for arson offenses demonstrates the need for improved investigations and prosecutions. Some States may consider intoxication of the accused in determining intent. Thus, questions that an investigator should ask a suspect who has been drinking are detailed, along with suggestions regarding sobriety tests. Amnesia is probably the most frequent defense raised by arson defendants, although it is not a legally accepted rationale. Psychiatric examination can generally detect false amnesia, although a genuine state of amnesia can be created voluntarily by drugs or alcohol. The alibi defense can only be countered by placing the defendant at the fire scene at or about the time of the act. The prosecutor can show a timing device and pinpoint its time lag or prove the employment of an accomplice. Many State statutes specify that children cannot be guilty of the crime of arson until they reach a certain age. It is necessary to consider if the juvenile understood that the act was illegal, but the presumption of lack of criminal intent decreases as the child's age increases. Other defenses reviewed include impossibility, suppression of statements, insanity, and violation of fourth amendment rights regarding search and seizure. Investigators must be aware that coercion and entrapment, although not commonly employed, are also available as defenses to the arson suspect. Attacking the credibility of the key witness is a major defense tactic in any trial. Suggestions concerning the investigator's behavior as a credible witness are presented. The paper includes 18 footnotes.


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