The National Trial Lawyers


Arson, also called burning a dwelling house, is a serious crime that carries the possibility of a state prison sentence.

Elements of Arson

In order to convict a defendant of arson, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:

  1. The defendant set fire to, burned, or caused a building to be burned;
  2. The building was a dwelling house, a building adjoining or adjacent to a dwelling house, or a building whose burning resulted in a dwelling house being burned; and
  3. The defendant acted maliciously and willfully.

A defendant can also be convicted for intentionally aiding the burning of a dwelling house. A dwelling house is any place where people live. Dwelling houses include single family homes, apartments, duplexes, hotels, hospitals, dormitories, boarding houses, and tenement buildings.

Because arson cases require that the defendant acted maliciously in burning the building, the defendant typically faces additional crimes such as civil rights violations or intimidation of a witness.

Common Defenses and Defense Strategies

Arson cases can be defended in a variety of ways.

  • Accident – The Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant willfully and maliciously burned a building. An “accident” is defined as an unexpected happening that occurs without intention or design on the defendant’s part. It is a sudden, unexpected event that takes place without the defendant’s intending it.
  • Proof of negligence is also not sufficient to prove a defendant guilty of arson. If a defendant causes a building to be burned by lack of due care, he or she cannot be found guilty of arson.
  • Absence of motive – Nobody is going to burn a building without a major reason for doing so. While it’s not legally required, the jury will want the Commonwealth to establish the defendant’s motive for committing the crime. Absence of motive is a defense in and of itself.
  • There must be some evidence of actual burning. An attempt to burn a building without actual burning is not sufficient to prove arson.

These cases usually involve extensive investigations by the police and fire departments. Determining the cause of a fire involves analysis by experts who consider a variety of factors including the presence of accelerants, burn patterns, and the origin of the fire. To rebut the Commonwealth’s expert witness, defendants charged with arson often hire their own experts to analyze the crime scene and offer their own opinions about the cause of the fire.

Given the serious consequences that result from an arson conviction, you should hire an aggressive criminal defense attorney who has experience in litigating these types of cases. Attorney Chris Spring served as an assistant district attorney for several years and prosecuted cases in district court and superior court. Since becoming a defense attorney, he has successfully defended more than a thousand individuals charged with crimes. Having tried more than 150 cases before Massachusetts juries in both district and superior court, Attorney Spring has the necessary experience to guide you through the criminal justice system and present your side of the story to a jury. As with any crime, you should never speak to the police before first consulting with a criminal defense attorney to explore all of your options.

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