Now in paperback. Was a monstrous killer brought to justice or an innocent mother condemned?
On an April night in 1989, Jo Ann Parks survived a house fire that claimed the lives of her three small children. Though the fire at first seemed a tragic accident, investigators soon reported finding evidence proving that Parks had sabotaged wiring, set several fires herself, and even barricade her four-year-old son inside a closet to prevent his escape. Though she insisted she did nothing wrong, Jo Ann Parks received a life sentence without parole based on the power of forensic fire science that convincingly proved her guilt.
But more than a quarter century later, a revolution in the science of fire has exposed many of the incontrovertible truths of 1989 as guesswork in disguise. The California Innocence Project is challenging Parks's conviction and the so-called science behind it, claiming that false assumptions and outright bias convicted an innocent mother of a crime that never actually happened.
If Parks is exonerated, she could well be the "Patient Zero" in an epidemic of overturned guilty verdicts—but only if she wins. Can prosecutors dredge up enough evidence and roadblocks to make sure Jo Ann Parks dies in prison? No matter how her last-ditch effort for freedom turns out, the scenes of betrayal, ruin, and hope will leave readers longing for justice we can trust.
Pulitzer Prize winner Humes (Mean Justice) provides a searing look at the limits of forensics in this unsettling reexamination of the case of Jo Ann Parks, convicted in 1993 for intentionally starting a fire in her Southern California apartment in order to kill her three young children. Parks's conviction was largely the product of testimony by a fire investigation expert who used since-discredited methodology. Humes, relying on the dogged efforts of attorney Raquel Cohen, of the California Innocence Project, convincingly demonstrates the fallacies underlying almost all traditional thinking about what evidence is relevant to a conclusion of arson. He provides a vivid picture of the reality of criminal investigations cases are "assembled not with brilliant detective work and Perry Mason courtroom moments, but one little brick at a time, built of shifting memories, shifting stories, shifting theories, shifting details." Humes's measured goal is not to advocate for Parks's innocence but to raise questions about "whether there was ever sufficient evidence to convict her," and open-minded readers will join in his skepticism. An instant true-crime classic that reads like a thriller, this joins the ranks of recent works also throwing into question the belief that crime scene investigators can infallibly arrive at the right answer.