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Experts Question State Fire Marshal Lab

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    NEWSLETTERS

    State lab's findings of gasoline in fire debris – crucial evidence in arson investigations– are being questioned by experts, leading agency to suspend the lab’s accreditation. (Published Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016)

    Sasheena Reynolds left her 11-month-old daughter, Jada, in her crib and took her older son to her apartment complex laundry room in December 2008 to finish some chores.

    After a while, she smelled smoke and, scooping up her son, ran to her apartment.

    "I tried to open the door, but the door wouldn’t open," she told NBC 6 Investigators. "Apparently, the heat held it shut and I’m screaming in the complex, 'Help!'"

    Neighbors restrained her, as others covered their heads in removed shirts, trying to get into the apartment to rescue Jada.

    But it was too hot, too smoky, too late.

    Her husband rushed home and they embraced amid the fire trucks and first responders in the complex parking lot, as the apartment was enveloped in flame.

    Jada’s body was removed from where she fell onto the floor of her bedroom when her crib collapsed.

    Investigators determined the fire started in the dining room, where Reynolds had left candles burning, as the power to the unit had been shut off.

    But they also questioned Reynolds as if, she later learned, she was suspected of arson.

    "It was just crazy to answer those questions. Why would I?" she said. "It was just an accident."

    CLOUD OF SUSPICION

    Investigators decided to see if gasoline or another accelerant was involved.

    So they sent Reynolds' clothes and slippers, along with heavily burned wood, debris and carpet, to the state fire marshal's lab near Tallahassee.

    The results: no ignitable liquid was found on the clothes, slippers, carpet or debris taken from the room where the fire started.

    But in wood taken from beneath Jada's body, the lab's analyst reported finding the chemical traces of gasoline.

    And when there’s no reason for gasoline to be at the scene of a fire, that means one thing to investigators: arson.

    "Gasoline is special," said fire investigator John Lentini. "If the laboratory finds kerosene or mineral spirits, that could be from a household product. But there’s no good reason to have gasoline in your house."

    Not unless you wanted to fuel a fire and, in the process, murder your daughter.

    Three weeks after the fire, that’s exactly what Reynolds was charged with: first-degree murder.

    "It was hell," she said, crying at the memory of being held without bond for 23 days. "It was like a ton of bricks, because first you’re dealing with the death of your daughter a few days before her birthday and then a few days later you hear that they’re trying to blame you for the whole thing…. Not only are you dealing with grief; now, you’re fighting for your life."

    A five-year fight that at times looked bleak – especially when what is supposed to be the state’s foremost arson lab is insisting gasoline was found in Jada’s bedroom.

    "They were wrong and we were shocked. And we’re like – gasoline? -- we don’t keep gasoline anywhere in our home," Reynolds said. "But like they say: truth always prevails. And that’s what I’ve just been hoping, truth just prevails."

    To prove that truth, Reynolds and attorney Lee Friedland had to hire an expert; in this case, John Lentini, the fire investigator. "We had to … pay quite a bit of money that we didn’t have,' Reynolds explained. "We just had to find it and work it out because we knew I was innocent and I had to find just whatever way I could to clear my name."

    DIFFERENCE OF OPINION

    Sure enough, when Lentini double checked the state fire marshal lab’s work, he reached the opposite conclusion: there was no gasoline.

    "They’re doing bad science. They’re finding gasoline where it doesn’t exist," Lentini told NBC 6 Investigators.

    Faced with conflicting expert opinions, prosecutors in 2013 offered Reynolds a deal she said she could not refuse: plead no contest to manslaughter and never serve another day in jail, if she successfully completes 10 years’ probation. The manslaughter charge was based on Reynolds leaving Jada unattended in an apartment with candles burning, what the state argued was culpable negligence.

    For its part, the lab continues to maintain gasoline was indeed detected in the wood in Jada’s bedroom – even though the fire started in another room where candles were left burning and all experts agree no gasoline was found in debris collected there or on any other evidence.

    Lentini, concerned the lab was making mistakes in other cases, as well, last year reported it to the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD-LAB), the agency that accredits the lab.

    In response, it sent an assessment team into the state lab in January and it ultimately agreed with Lentini: the lab was misreading results from sensitive equipment that determines what chemical compounds are left behind in fires.

    It’s supposed to work like this:

    Fire debris is collected and placed into air tight containers, usually paint cans. A carbon strip is hung inside in the headspace above the debris. The containers are placed in an oven for hours, releasing volatile compounds from the debris and onto the carbon strip hanging above it.

    The compounds’ remnants are removed from the strip by a liquid solvent, and the resulting mixture is then injected into a sensitive apparatus called a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer. That combined machine produces graphs which, when read properly, reveal various substances found in the sample.

    The fire chemist compares those graphs to those of known substances, such as gasoline and other accelerants, to look for a match.

    The state lab’s problem, according to Lentini and the accreditation agency’s assessors: state analysts are improperly interpreting those graphs and concluding gasoline is present, when the results are not that conclusive.

    The ASCLD-LAB assessors examined 28 cases where gasoline or a mixture of ignitable liquids was reported by the state lab and disagreed with the lab’s conclusions in 16 of those cases.

    Among them: a boat fire in the Panhandle that resulted in arson charges being dropped and the state paying a nearly $250,000 settlement to the defendant who filed a wrongful arrest lawsuit; and a 2010 kitchen fire in Hialeah that resulted in arson charges after the lab claimed gasoline was found on the stove; that charge was dropped after police contradicted themselves about whether they thought the defendant was to blame.

    In six other cases, the ASCLD-LAB assessment team found the data did not support the identification of gasoline’ And in seven others, it found, the state lab did not support the identification of a mixture of petroleum products. The assessor also found one case where a test sample that was supposed to be negative for ignitable liquids had been contaminated by gasoline.

    The team confirmed the state fire marshal’s determinations of ignitable liquids being present in only 12 of the 28 cases, which originated from 2009 through 2015.

    As a result of that and other concerns, ASCLD-LAB suspended the state lab’s accreditation – a decision the state is appealing.

    "INCOMPETENTS AND INCOMPETENCE"

    In objecting to the findings, the lab’s chief, Carl Chasteen, wrote in a May 7 letter to ASCLD/LAB: "The report is full of allegations that make it seem that this is laboratory full of incompetents and incompetence."

    Chasteen, whose official title is chief of forensic services for Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, continued: "The report suggests a deliberate attempt on our part to find and justify ignitable liquids in sample where none exists."

    He then attempts to refute each of the allegations.

    In a statement to NBC 6 Investigators, Atwater’s office said:

    "The Department’s forensic analysis laboratory houses talented, well-trained analysts who apply the highest possible standards to every case they receive. Since 2010, when the lab was first accredited, (ASCLD-LAB) has studied our case files, reviewed our policies, and has repeatedly concluded that the department’s lab is operated and maintained according to the highest standards. The lab was fully reaccredited in April 2015, with no adverse findings."

    But, after Lentini’s complaint in May 2015, the assessment team returned and found the violations.

    "It is incredulous to assume that the lab’s policies and procedures would have degraded so significantly in roughly a month to warrant a sanction," the statement continued. "It also calls into question the legitimacy of ASCLD-LAB’s accreditation process, that their findings are so tenuous they can be reversed on a third party complaint."

    The state paid for another expert to review its lab work, including the specific cases challenged by Lentini and the assessment team, and that review backed up the state’s findings.

    While it appeals, the state continues to produce opinions on the presence of ignitable liquids in fires – opinions that can mean the difference between freedom or life in prison for someone suspected of arson.

    GETTING BETTER, NOT BITTER

    Reynolds said it could have been easy to let the ordeal break her spirit.

    Instead, she is honoring Jada’s memory through the Gifts From Jada Foundation, a charity she and her husband set up in 2009 to help other families cope with the grief of losing a loved one.

    Recently, the group arranged for free back-to-school haircuts, face-painting and music for children at the Headz Up Hair Studio in Margate.

    "It’s a bitter sweet feeling," Reynolds said over the joyful din of children celebrating. "There’s a saying that you can either get bitter, or get better. And I’ve chosen to be better."

    She’s had another daughter and with her husband is trying to put their lives back together, learning an important lesson along the way.

    "Life is not always about you," she said. "It’s how you handle the grief. And I’m just handling it this way by giving back. Seeing a smile on a child’s face is very healing for me."

    Jada would have turned eight years old last Christmas.

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