The Accreditation for Florida's Arson Crime Lab Goes Up in Smoke

On March 7, 2016, the ASCLD/LAB suspended the suspended the accreditation of the Florida Fire Marshal Bureau of Forensic Fire and Explosives Analysis (BFFEA) in the fire debris category of testing only.

This is a big deal because in arson investigations in criminal cases, fire debris samples will be analyzed to determine the presence and identity of any ignitable liquids such as gasoline. When ignitable liquids such as gasoline are identified by the crime lab, this is powerful evidence for the prosecutor that the fire was intentionally set by a person committing the crime of arson. The finding in the lab report often leads to an arrest for arson or insurance fraud. These reports are also used by insurance companies to deny claims for fire damage.

The lab techs in these cases are called a "senior analyst." The lab tech will extract and analyze fire debris against laboratory procedures including the use of passive headspace concentration and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry.

If the lab identified ignitable liquids in the sample, such as gasoline, when none actually exist, then innocent people can be convicted of arson and other serious felony charges. This type of trace evidence has a significant impact in the way a criminal arson case is prosecuted. Amazingly, from 1992 until 2013, this lab found ignitable liquids were found in 47% of samples. This investigation found that out of a random portion of those samples, the analysis was wrong more than half the time.

The Media Breaks the Story  

Jarrod Holbrook with Action News recently completed an investigative report on how “Florida’s arson lab loses accreditation, wrongful charges a main concern.”

You can see the story here -

The Florida Arson Lab is expected to lose the appeal over the loss of the accreditation. Regardless, the findings will undoubtedly impact many arson and insurance fraud investigations across the State of Florida.

Criminal defense attorneys will file post-conviction motions to set aside wrongful convictions based on this newly discovered evidence, and many insurance companies will be paying additional claims for fire damage that they denied based on those lab results.

Concerns Regarding the Competency of Laboratory Personnel

The investigation was conducted by ASCLD/LAB-International, the organization that provides accreditation to crime labs throughout the country, reported that it randomly tested 26 cases and found 14 in which the lab erroneously found the presence of gasoline, which (according to the report) “indicates concern regarding the competency of laboratory personnel.”

Despite these findings and the suspension of accreditation, the website for the Bureau of Forensic Fire and Explosive Analysis (BFFEA) still proudly displays the picture of the Bureau Staff holding up their accreditation certificates from ASCLD/LAB International.

Carl E. Chasteen, the Chief of Forensic Services at the Florida Arson Lab

The most amazing part of the story is the one-page letter written on May 7, 2016, by Carl E. Chasteen, the Chief of Forensic Services at the Florida Arson Lab. Ironically, the letterhead he used still had the seal of approval from the ASCLD/Lab-International proudly displayed at the bottom. The Florida’s Arson Lab is a Division of State Fire Marshal / Bureau of Fire and Explosives Analysis of the Florida Department of Financial Services.

The letter was written to Ms. Pamela Bordner with ASCLD/LAB-International. The letter explained that when Carl E. Chasteen was first apprised of the makeup of this Team of Assessors from ASCLD/LAB-International he thought they would provide a fair and objective review. Carl Chasteen would later complaint to ASCLD/LAB that:

“The allegations should have been kept confidential.”

It appears that Carl Chasteen kept the findings from judges, prosecutors, and criminal defense attorneys even as cases involving those types of lab reports continued to process through the system.

John J. Lentini with Scientific Fire Analysis, LLC

According to Carl Chasteen, the investigation was the result of a complaint by an expert named Mr. John Lentini, who disputed the lab’s determination of gasoline in a sample used in the case against A. Stanley Freeman, who was accused of arson and insurance fraud.

John J. Lentini is an expert in the scientific protocols for fire investigations with Scientific Fire Analysis, LLC, in Islamorada, FL. He is used as an expert by fire investigators, prosecutors, insurance companies, and criminal defense attorneys to conduct fire investigation reviews and causation analysis.

Mr. Lentini had previously proffered an expert opinion against the Florida arson laboratory’s findings in a particular case concerning a sample on which the lab determined the presence of gasoline. The person wrongfully accused of arson and insurance fraud was cleared, and the State of Florida quietly paid $247,000 in taxpayer money to settle a civil rights lawsuit that followed.

Thereafter, Mr. Lentini questioned the lab’s work and filed a complaint last year disclosing the inaccurate testing procedures used by the lab.

In the four-page complaint filed in May of 2015, he concluded:

“I suspect that erroneous identifications of gasoline happen on a routine basis.” 

The allegations were handed over to the Investigations Program Manager for ASCDL/LAB International. Amazingly the organization that gives out accreditation to crime labs essentially agreed with that conclusion and suspended the accreditation.

The Critical Report by the Special Assessment Team 

In response to Mr. Lentini's complain, Carl Chasteen responded and turned over additional information requested. He was then informed that a special assessment team was being assembled to come to the laboratory and review the complaint and their casework.

In the appeal, Carl Chasteen expressed his surprise “that ASCLD/LAB would undertake the cost for an assessment of this type….” Carl Chasteen also complained that because of the special nature of this assessment, the representatives from ASCLD/LAB International would not provide him with the type of overview usually provided at an exit meeting.

Instead, the representatives, Mr. Harry Fox and Ms. Reta Newman (a forensic expert from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office / Director of the Pinellas County Forensic Laboratory), came to Carl Chasteen’s office and indicated that there would be findings against the lab, but they could not provide details at that time. Carl Chasteen states in the letter that he initially thought from the tone of the conversation and items discussed that the report would be “so critical.”

When he read the report, however, Carl Chasten concluded that it essentially appeared to “repudiate” all of the lab’s work over the years, their “professional reputations” and their “personal character.” According to the letter, he jokingly asked when they left, if he should prepare his resume in the event their report may cause his employers to seek my resignation.

He said that both laughed and said not to worry. He later found out that he should have worried because according to Carl Chasteen, the report was:

“…full of allegations that make it seem that this is a laboratory full of incompetents and incompetence. The report suggests that ASTM E1618 has all the answers and provides a clear guide which we chose not to follow. The report suggests a deliberate attempt on our part to find and justify ignitable liquids in samples where none exists, that we do not apply correct quality assurance, and controls over our staff.” 

The appeal that he prepared then attempted to “refute each and every point where we have identified criticisms which, in our opinion, were unfounded. On some few points we agree that we can affect improvements to our processes and will propose appropriate corrective actions.”

The appeal highlights the magnitude of the problem:
This laboratory processes 3,500 to 4,000 fire debris samples per year. Other than the Ohio Fire Marshal’s Laboratory or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Laboratories, we may process more Fire Debris Samples than any other laboratory in the nation.  
As this has been my profession for 37 years, I have personally analyzed over 14,000 fire debris samples and provided technical review of more than 90,000 fire debris samples. I am often consulted by analysts from other laboratories to provide assistance in the interpretation of unusual or difficult samples which I am happy to do without any request for remuneration or notoriety.  
I have been the head of this laboratory since January 8, 1992. I have been intimately involved in the development of the discipline of fire debris analysis.  

The Problem with GC/MS for Fire Debris Analysis

According to Carl Chasteen, this is how the problems began:
The introduction of the GC/MS for fire debris analysis opened the door to greater scrutiny. It allowed the analyst to go beyond the total ion chromatogram (TIC) and examine both Extracted Ion Chromatograms (EIC), Extracted Ion Profiles (EIP), and the mass spectra of individual peaks. Improvements in column technology and the gas chromatograph itself improved the ability to better resolve the components in an ignitable liquid.  
Laboratories still today have to make a choice to balance the quality of the resolution with the amount of time required per analysis. As a result, while gasoline has been reported as having up to 400 separate compounds, most labs only resolve it to 230 to 280 components. This is a vast improvement since the 1970’s when most labs only resolved gasoline into 25 components. Is it any wonder then that a rate of over 50% of fire debris samples are written up as negative?  
Any laboratory doing their job appropriately will choose to make a negative determination if there is any doubt of an identification. Analysts with only occasional or limited exposure to fire debris analysis rightly need to maintain a very high threshold of confidence and be very conservative in their determinations simply because they lack the experience….  
Each of our analysts see thousands of fire debris samples per year as this is our primary type of analysis. In their training they shadow seasoned analysts for months while they are taught how to perform extractions, how to run the instruments, and how to perform interpretations. After that they must perform a few hundred of supervised casework samples before being allowed to work independently.  
We allow interns and visiting scientists to observe our work as they will often see more fire debris casework in one week here that they may see in an entire year in their home laboratories. Fire debris analysts face a major challenge when it comes to discerning an ignitable liquid from a strong matrix contribution. 
In the appeal, Carl Chasteen complains that since the report found the laboratory was in such flagrant violation of accreditation requirements that:
We find it highly incongruous that all the previous assessments and surveillance visits failed to discern the problems that the special assessment team found by looking at essentially the same quality documents and casework. 
Carl Chasteen concludes:
Either our personnel are the most astute at predicting the actions of an assessment team and at suppressing any problems to keep them from being found, all the prior assessments or surveillance visits were improperly conducted and failed to identify problems and violations of Standards, or that this special assessment team had the ability or bias to find problems where none had been noted before.
The lab is run by Jeff Atwater, the elected chief financial officer. In an effort to restore the lab’s credibility, Jeff Atwater is attacking the motives of the accrediting agency. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday to fight the sanctions. Apparently, no media will be allowed at the hearing.

This might not be the only fire arson crime lab with this problem. Mr. Carl Chasteen is a leader in this field, and if his lab has these problems, it is likely that these types of problems are systemic throughout other state-run arson labs. In the appeal he explains:
I have been a member of ASCLD since 1993 and a member of the ASTM E-30 committee writing various fire debris standards since the same year. I was the original chair of the Technical and Scientific Working Group for Fire and Explosions (T/SWGFEX) holding the position for the first eight years. 
I am still serving as the Vice-Chair of the skeleton of T/SWGFEX and Chair of the Ignitable Liquids Reference Committee which reviews and classifies all ignitable liquids on the international database,
....I have also been the Chair of the Forensic Science Committee of the International Association for Arson Investigation for many years during the 1990’s authoring or co-authoring numerous articles or positions published in their magazine, Fire and Arson Investigator.  
I have also been asked to develop courses and teach fire debris analysis (basic, advanced, and organic chemistry for fire debris analysts) through on-line classes for the University of Central Florida since 2009. I have developed and taught fire debris analysis workshops and seminars for the Midwest Forensics Resource Center, The State of Virginia, the State of New York, the State of Michigan, and this month, the State of Missouri.  
I have developed and presented workshops in basic and advanced fire debris analysis for the Northeastern Association of Forensic Science, The Mid-Atlantic Association of Forensic Science, the Southern Association of Forensic Science and the Midwestern Association of Forensic Science.  
These presentations focused on the systematic approach to fire debris analysis I have used internally for our staff and in the training of interns from many different University programs including the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, the University of Central Florida, Eastern Kentucky University, West Virginia University, The University of Lausanne (Switzerland), Auburn University, Florida State University, and the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.  
I helped to develop the R214 class offered by the National Fire Academy on Forensic Evidence Collection. I am also the author of the NIJ report “2007-2008 National Needs Assessment for the Near and Long Term Future of Fire Debris and Explosives Analysis and Investigation”.  
I was an original planning panel member that developed the NIJ report titled “A Guide for Investigating Fire and Arson”. 
I am also currently a committee member of the Chemistry and Instrumental Analysis committee of the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) and chair of the ad hoc committee on terminology. It should be very clear that when it comes to fire debris analysis, I am not a novice.  
I am not unfamiliar with the technical requirements of the discipline. And, I am not a laboratory director without active expertise in the discipline. I do not offer this as puffery, but as a reference base for my observations and opinions in this rejection and appeal to the findings of this special assessment team. 

Bigger Problem: Failure to Disclose Exculpatory Evidence

Criminal defense attorneys with pending arson and insurance fraud cases involving one of those lab reports might be waiting awhile for that Brady Notice. If you get one, send me a copy. I'd love to see it.

In the meantime, if you need a copy of the 52-page Letter and Appeal from Carl Chasteen, send me an email and I'll forward you a copy. I'll also post a copy on the forum board of the Florida Association for Criminal Defense Lawyer (FACDL).

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