23 December 2013

The Doctrine of Chances In Arson Cases

I'd never heard of this doctrine prior to getting involved in some arson cases lately, which seems to be where we see it the most in the U.S. Has anyone else seen this used and, if so, in any cases other than arson? What follows is a section of a brief which I wrote in one of the arson cases.

One fire, completely believable. Two fires, wicked bad luck. Three fires, no way.
State v. Vuley (Vt. No. 2011-087, 2013)

The man who wins the lottery once is envied; the one who wins it twice is investigated.
U.S. v. York, 933 F.2d 1343 (C.A.7 (Ill.), 1991).

The doctrine of chances (also known as the doctrine of objective improbability) is generally recognized to have sprung from the English case of Rex v. Smith, 11 Cr. App. R. 229, 84 L.J.K.B. 2153 (1915)(the death of a third wife by drowning in a bath tub allowed introduction of the first two wives' deaths by drowning in bath tubs) and to have entered American jurisprudence in United States v. Woods, 484 F.2d 127 (4th Cir. 1973)(when the seventh child in a woman's care died with symptoms of cyanosis evidence of the prior deaths was admitted to establish the corpus delicti). However, as Woods recognizes, there was already long established precedence in American common law that “prior acts can be proved to establish the corpus delicti of arson.” Id. At 135, citing State v. Schleigh, 210 Ore. 155, 310 P.2d 341, 348 (1957) (eight fires along the same road the defendant was on were allowed into evidence to show motive, common scheme, and to negative inadvertence); State v. Smith, 221 S.W.2d 158 (Mo. 1949) (proof of a prior fire was admissible to show that a second fire was incendiary); People v. Wolf, 334 Ill. 218, 165 N.E. 619 (1929) (proof of fire in the house was admissible to show that the burning of the barn was caused by human agency); State v. Ritter, 288 Mo. 381, 231 S.W. 606 (1921) (proof of prior fires admissible to show intent, show that the fire in question was of incendiary origin, and also to prove the corpus delicti, or connect the appellant with same); People v. Jones, 123 Cal. 65, 55 P. 698 (1898) (proof of burning of four separate buildings admissible to prove corpus delicti).

The purpose of the admittance of prior occurrences under the doctrine of chances is to show that lack of accident or, as older cases state it, to “negative inadvertence.” This doctrine is particularly well suited for cases in which insurance claims are involved. In York, supra, evidence of one murder where the defendant was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy on the deceased was admissible in a later murder trial where the defendant was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy on another deceased. Of course, insurance claims are also involved in arsenous fires. “Where the same person has a series of fires and collects insurance, it furnishes a basis for an inference, of more or less strength, that the fires were not accidental.” People v. Harris, 263 Ill. 406, 418 (Ill. 1914). See also People v. Mardlin, 487 Mich. 609 (2010)(four previous fires with insurance claims allowed into evidence in trial of a fifth fire with an insurance claim), & State v. Allen, 301 Or. 569, (1986)(proof of an arson with an insurance claim in 1975 allowed as evidence in an arson with an insurance claim in 1982).

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