Fire Expert Witness’s Testimony Ruled Admissible in Arson Case


Fire Expert WitnessCase: State v. Barnett, 480 A.2d 791 (Me. 1984)

Background:

Defendant sought review of a decision from the Superior Court, Penobscot County (Maine), which, following a jury trial, convicted defendant for arson. Defendant contended that the justice presiding at his trial committed a reversible error in permitting one of the state’s witnesses to give opinion testimony.

Defendant’s claim of error focused on the testimony of Chief Daniel Hart of the Millinocket Fire Department, who testified as to his observations upon entering the defendant’s house after a fire had been extinguished by firefighters. After Chief Hart had recounted his observations, the prosecutor sought to elicit testimony from the chief that he had called in the state fire marshal’s office to investigate the origin of the fire because he thought the fire was “suspicious”. The defendant contended that the chief’s subsequent testimony contained an expert opinion and therefore violated the court’s earlier ruling that the chief was not competent to testify as an expert.

Expert Witness:

Chief Hart, who had served eighteen years as a firefighter, was able to recite a long and impressive list of credentials. Hart testified that he had been involved in fire investigations while serving in the Air Force, while working in the fire departments of several large corporations, and while working for his own consulting firm prior to joining the Millinocket Fire Department. He had received formal training from the Air Force, from the Boston Fire Department, from the Boston Fire Academy, and from the Maine State Fire Marshall’s Office. Although he testified that he felt qualified to determine most of the obvious causes of fires and to know when further investigation was necessary, he conceded that he did not feel as a qualified fire causation safety expert to pinpoint the cause of all fires.

Daubert Challenge:

The defendant contends that Chief Hart’s testimony in regards to the possible cause of the fire contained an expert opinion and therefore violated the court’s earlier ruling that Hart could only testify that he believed the fire to be of suspicious origin if he was qualified as an expert.

Conclusion:

The court held that given the chief’s substantial background in arson investigation and given his familiarity with the working of furnaces, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing Hart to testify as he did. Chief Hart’s statement did not go beyond the scope of this qualified ruling. He simply stated that he looked for “soot or blackening on the front of the furnace” as evidence of an internal explosion and found none. Chief Hart’s concession that he felt unqualified to identify the cause and origin of all fires did not address his ability to identify evidence of an explosion within a furnace. The fact that the witness disclaimed his ability to testify as an expert did not prevent the trial court from permitting him to do so.

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