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United States v. Hebshie

United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts
754 F. Supp. 2d 89 (2010)


Facts

James Hebshie (defendant) was charged with arson after a fire in a building where Hebshie ran a convenience store. At Hebshie’s trial, the United States (plaintiff) presented testimony from the handler of an accelerant-detection dog named Billy. Billy’s handler testified about his emotional relationship with Billy and made unsubstantiated claims about Billy’s smelling abilities. The handler explained that Billy smelled a substance in one area of Hebshie’s store and alerted the handler that the substance was an accelerant. Government experts took a sample of the substance, but the experts did not investigate whether any other areas of the store contained alleged accelerants, and they did not take control samples from anywhere in the store. Moreover, the government experts did not thoroughly examine other areas in the building where the fire could have started, and they failed to preserve the crime scene for review by Hebshie’s experts or peer reviewers before the building was torn down. A government cause-and-origin arson expert ultimately testified at trial that the fire began in the section of the store where Billy smelled the substance. A laboratory technician testified that the substance was a light petroleum distillate, a broad category of substances found in many products typically sold in convenience stores. Light petroleum distillates could also be generated as heat from the fire affected materials present in the store. Laboratory technicians never analyzed whether the sample contained any chemicals that would not ordinarily be found in a convenience store. Hebshie’s trial counsel had been told by experts and Hebshie’s previous lawyer that there were weaknesses in the government’s evidence, and several legal journals and previous cases had questioned the scientific reliability of arson evidence generally. Nevertheless, Hebshie’s trial counsel never challenged the reliability of the government’s arson evidence, never objected to the trial testimony, and even praised the government’s experts to the jury. The trial court specifically asked Hebshie’s counsel whether he wanted to object to the testimony from the dog handler, arson expert, or laboratory technician. The court even offered to suspend the trial and hold a hearing on the evidence’s admissibility, but Hebshie’s counsel declined. Hebshie was convicted. He subsequently filed a federal habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, claiming that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to challenge the arson evidence.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Gertner, J.)

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