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Penn Program on Documentaries & the Law Releases Video on Invalid Fire Science and the Case of Letitia Smallwood

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In the University of Pennsylvania School of Law’s Program on Documentaries & the Law students create “nonfiction advocacy films on behalf of actual clients and/or groups devoted to the advancement of the cause of social justice.” For the 2014-2015 academic year, the students accepted our proposal to produce a video about individuals incarcerated in Pennsylvania based on invalid fire science and the difficulties in obtaining justice for these actually innocent people because of the procedural hurdles in having their claims heard. The video was completed in July and focuses on the case of the Project’s own Teri Smallwood, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1973 for an alleged arson in which two people died.

Teri was released from prison on bail in 2015, having shown that the cause of the fire was undetermined; in other words, based on current fire science, it cannot be said whether the fire was intentional or accidental. Her situation is similar to many people who are currently incarcerated for the crime of arson who are attempting to seek relief based on improvements in fire science.

Our thanks to the Program on Documentaries & the Law and to the three students involved: Elizabeth Frawley, Yosha Gunasekera and Tyler Neal. You can view their video, From an Art to a Science: Wrongful Arson Convictions and Developments in the Forensics of Fire Investigations, on our website or at