Florida's arson lab loses accreditation, wrongful charges a main concern

Concerns raised with how lab tests gasoline

TAMPA, Fla. -

When Florida fire investigators gather samples to test for arson, they usually ship them off to the state's lab and rely on the chemist's conclusions. But the I-Team discovered that the lab they use was under investigation for how they do their tests.

The Florida Fire Marshal's Bureau of Forensic Fire and Explosive Analysis Laboratory had their accreditation for fire debris testing suspended, in part because serious problems surfaced with how chemists have been testing samples for gasoline.

"And as a result, they find gasoline where no one else can find gasoline -- because it doesn't exist -- and that ruins people's lives," said John Lentini, who has been in the arson investigation industry since the 1970s. 

Lentini has been an expert witness in many arson cases. He said in at least five Florida cases he was an expert on, prosecutors dismissed criminal charges because the state improperly identified gasoline in their samples.

"It's a huge problem in Florida," said Lentini.

John filed a formal complaint with the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD), an accreditation agency that holds arson and crime labs to a higher standard. It's not required for a lab to be accredited, but it helps their credibility in criminal cases.

"Finding gasoline where it doesn't exist is the kind of mistake that causes people to be wrongfully accused," said Lentini. 

In his complaint, Lentini stated, "I suspect the erroneous identifications of gasoline happen on a routine basis."

In the case of Arthur Stanley Freeman, Lentini said there were flaws, and an innocent went to jail for arson. Freeman was accused of using gasoline to set his boat on fire. The state lab identified gas in their samples, but later a prosecutor dismissed the case and the state had to pay freeman $250,000.

"They don't follow any written procedure," said Lentini.

After getting Lentini's complaint, the accreditation agency sent their own assessor to investigate in January. When looking at the Freeman case, the investigator found, "the compounds found in the data were not characteristic of gasoline."

And further, after randomly sampling 26 gasoline cases from 2009 to 2015, they found "concerns of accuracy" with 14 cases -- more than half of the sample. Their report also stated, "The issue is not whether protocols were followed, rather it appears to be a lack of sufficient protocols."

"This a huge deal. I mean, it's going to impact every single lab test that came out of that lab. When that accreditation gets pulled, that's a really big deal for the crime lab," said Tampa defense attorney Leslie Sammis.

Sammis told us no one told her the lab's accreditation was suspended. She said this information should be shared with every defense attorney in Florida.

"So if prosecutors don't know about it, that's a really big problem," said Sammis. "And if the prosecutors do know about it, and they're not sending out to the criminal defense attorney, that's an even bigger problem."

Professor Jeff Swartz at Cooley School of Law is a former judge, prosecutor and defense attorney. He said the problems identified could send innocent people to jail -- and even let guilty criminals back out on the streets.

"It is conceivable that a person who has been rightfully convicted could end up having their conviction overturned," says Swartz.

Julius Halas is the Director of the Division of State Fire Marshal under Florida CFO Jeff Atwater. When asked if there were any problems with the way the lab tests gasoline, Halas stood behind the work.

"Oh no we believe we have outstanding senior lab analysts," said Halas. "We actually think we're doing outstanding work."

When asked about the chances of improper testing with the lab's samples, Halas doubled down.

"Basically, I would want to discuss that with you as well as with our chief of our forensic area, because we know we're doing proper procedures," said Halas. "So, do I have confidence? Yes I do."

Director Halas is appealing their case with the accreditation agency. In the meantime, he said they will continue testing samples for gasoline and other accelerants.

John Lentini said as long as they continue in the same manner, the state is headed down a dangerous path.

"More people will be accused of arson. Some people may be wrongfully convicted, and if those people manage to get their convictions overturned, the state of Florida will pay a lot of money," said Lentini.

CFO Atwater and the lab's director hired an independent agency to investigate their testing methods. At time of publishing, we have received no word on how much that investigation cost taxpayers, and we await the results.

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