Board rejects mercy for condemned Ohio arsonist

A death row inmate's theory that a mysterious "man in red" could have started the arson fire that killed his 3-year-old son is "an extraordinary stretch of the imagination," the state parole board ruled Wednesday in unanimously rejecting his plea for mercy.

Michael Webb doesn't dispute the 1990 blaze was arson, but he denies starting it and says investigators using now-discredited methods came to the wrong conclusion about where in the house the flames broke out. He says the correct determination points to someone else as the culprit.

The Webb case is one in a series of cases around the U.S. that represents a new legal frontier: Defense attorneys in Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states are using advances in the science of fire investigation to challenge arson convictions, in much the same way they are employing DNA to clear those in prison for murder and rape.

Clermont County prosecutor Don White said Wednesday that he wasn't surprised because he always thought Webb's claim was meritless. Messages left with Webb's attorney weren't immediately returned. Research in recent decades has challenged long-held assumptions about how flames spread and the tell-tale signs they leave.

For example, decades ago, it was common for investigators to conclude an accelerant like gasoline was used if a fire burned particularly hot. In fact, the new arson science has found no such correlation, experts say. Another mistaken assumption: A V-shaped pattern on a wall of a burned building is proof of arson.