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Arson investigation needs scrutiny

Flying is an extremely safe way to travel, and a huge reason is that the aviation industry learns from its mistakes. The National Transportation Safety Board gets the credit: The board rigorously investigates airplane accidents, and publishes its findings — which often describe embarrassing episodes of pilot error — without fear or favor.

Law enforcement should do the same. And it could start by making a case study out of Monday’s dismissal of arson charges against the former principal of Trinity High School in Dickinson, N.D.

What on Earth happened?

To recap, here is the headline from the March 5 Herald, only two days after a late-night fire shut down Trinity for the school year:

“Principal to face charges for fire at school.”

Contrast that with the headline from the Herald’s front page on Tuesday — “Judge dismisses arson charges against former principal” — and you’ve got a chain of events that law-enforcement students and professionals alike ought to study as a cautionary tale.

Of course, for Sander, the system arguably worked just as it should. The evidence against him looked strong early on. In fact, during an interview on the day after the blaze, he confessed to starting the fire, Dickinson police said.

But Americans are innocent until a court proves them guilty; and long before the date of any trial, doubts about the case against Sander arose.

First, Sander recanted his confession, said he had been coerced into offering it and reasserted his innocence.

The question of coercion hasn’t been settled, as best as we can determine. (It should be, and trainers should use the videotape to teach what to do and not to do.)

But the next argument by Sander’s defense attorney persuaded a judge: Sander wasn’t read his Miranda rights until March 5, the day after he “confessed.” Obviously, the reading of rights should have happened long before that.

So, was this just another case that got derailed by a “technicality”? Not at all, because the bombshells kept coming:

“The defense also accuses the detectives of misrepresenting the evidence,” The Dickinson Press reported.

“A note left at the scene by the suspect, for example, was analyzed for handwriting comparison to Sander. The detectives told Sander there was a ‘10-point match’ with his handwriting when in reality, the handwriting report concluded it is reasonably possible that someone else wrote the note.

“The detectives also allegedly told Sander there was video evidence of him committing the crime, but there is not.”

Three witnesses were set to support Sander’s alibi, which is that he was at home when the fire was being set.

Then there’s this:

A student “knew accurate, non-public details about how the fire was started, the combination of the vault where it began and had a grudge against the school, according to the latest court filing,” The Dickinson Press reported in June.

Sander’s lawyers “wrote about the student in their brief to show how investigators allegedly ignored other evidence because they ‘had already announced to the world that Sander was their guy.’ …

“The student came to investigators’ attention after leaving an anonymous letter at the jail with a confession and proclaiming Sander’s innocence. … The interview showed the student knew further details about the fire that aligned with the arson investigator’s findings, while details Sander gave don’t align with the findings.”

Dickinson police must continue gathering evidence in the Trinity fire. But North Dakota also needs a thorough look at the Sander investigation, so law enforcers statewide can learn from what went wrong.