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Negative corpus and the Joseph Awe case

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

The Joseph Awe case is a remarkable example of how flawed fire investigation methods and insurance company interests can lead to a wrongful conviction for arson. Joseph Awe was the owner of J.J.'s Pub, a bar in Harrisville, Wisconsin, that burned down on September 11, 2006. Awe was at home more than 30 miles away when the fire started, but he was immediately suspected by the firefighters and the police, who relied on the testimony of a dubious informant and the findings of two arson experts hired by Awe's insurance company.

The insurance company had a motive to avoid paying Awe's claim of at least $200,000 if the fire was ruled accidental. The arson experts used a method called "negative corpus", which means that they ruled out all possible accidental causes and concluded that the fire must have been intentional. However, this method has been widely criticized by fire science experts as unreliable and unscientific, because it does not account for unknown or undetected causes.

Awe was charged with arson with intent to defraud in April 2007 and went on trial in December 2007. He denied any involvement in the fire and presented evidence that the building had electrical problems and that he was not in financial distress. He also hired his own fire investigator, who testified that the fire was electrical. However, his investigator had little experience and was not credible to the jury. Awe was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison and nine years of supervision. He was also sued by his insurance company for the cost of their investigation.

Awe appealed his conviction several times, but without success. He reported to prison in 2010 and served nearly three years before he was granted a new trial by the same judge who presided over his original trial. The judge ruled that Awe's conviction was based on flawed science and that he deserved a chance to present new evidence from more qualified fire experts. The judge also expressed concern about the role of the insurance company in the criminal case and the fact that their experts' fees were not disclosed to the defense.

Awe was released from prison on March 25, 2013, after spending more than six years trying to clear his name. His case was featured in a four-part series by the Wisconsin State Journal in 2011, which exposed the problems with arson investigations and prosecutions in Wisconsin and across the country. Awe's case is one of many examples of how innocent people can be convicted of arson based on outdated and unreliable methods that have not kept up with advances in fire science.

For more information, see: University of Michigan Law School, National Registry of Exonerations, "Joseph Awe”. v. Awe, multiple criminal appeals

Gilliam, Mia, "The Role of Official Misconduct in Wrongful Convictions" (2016). Theses and Dissertations. 501.

STATE v. AWE, 2009 WI App. Ct. Briefs LEXIS 1891: State v. Awe, 2009 WI App. Ct. Briefs LEXIS 1891.

STATE v. AWE, 2009 WI App. Ct. Briefs LEXIS 1892: State v. Awe, 2009 WI App. Ct. Briefs LEXIS 1892.

State v. Awe, 2010 Wisc. App. LEXIS 167: State v. Awe, 2010 Wisc. App. LEXIS 167.

State v. Awe, 2010 WI 111: State v. Awe, 2010 WI 111.

State v. Awe, Case No. 07 CF 54, Circuit Court of Marquette County, March 21, 2013: State v. Awe, Case No. 07 CF 54, Circuit Court of Marquette County, March 21, 2013.

Mt. Morris Mut. Ins. Co. v. Awe, 2011 WI 100: Mt. Morris Mut. Ins. Co. v. Awe, 2011 WI 100.

Scientific Fire Analysis, Vol. 1, No. 1, July 1, 2018: Author, "Title of Article," Journal Name, Volume Number, Issue Number (if applicable), Date, Page Numbers. Example: Smith, J., "New Developments in Fire Investigation," Scientific Fire Analysis, vol. 1, no. 1, July 1, 2018, pp. 10-15.

Hall, D., "Burning questions: Old assumptions hard to put out," Wisconsin State Journal, May 20, 2011, (accessed on March 28, 2023).

Johnson, B., "Arson Prosecution: Fighting Fire with Science," Criminal Justice, vol. 28, no. 4, Winter 2014, pp. 4-11.

International Network for Innocent Arson Defendants: International Network for Innocent Arson Defendants, (accessed on March 28, 2023).

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