Charlotte Observer

Wed, Jun. 07, 2006

Defense expert: Mom didn't start fatal fire
He cites lit candle in bedroom


An arson expert hired by Lisa Greene's defense team says the Midland mother did not set the Jan. 10 house fire that killed her two children.

In interviews with the Observer, John Lentini, a private fire investigator in Marietta, Ga., said a lit candle in the children's bedroom started the fire.

Lentini -- a national advocate of using research-based scientific methods to investigate fires -- said local and state investigators are relying on outdated techniques to determine where the fire started and how it spread.

But a State Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman said SBI arson investigators are professionally trained.

Lentini contacted the Observer by e-mail after reviewing the state's evidence against Greene. Her defense attorneys, who said they did not authorize his comments, instructed him to make no further comments.

Greene is charged with arson and two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Daniel Macemore, 10, and his sister, Addison, 8. Both children died of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation.

Investigators have said combustible materials were used to start the fire in a hallway on a shelf next to the children's bedroom.

Lentini said local and state fire investigators have limited scientific training and are mistaken about the fire being intentionally set in the hallway. After starting in the children's room, he said, the fire burned through the bedroom door. Greene tried to save her children by using a blanket to open their bedroom door, but the blanket caught fire, Lentini said. He confirmed the door handle and lock was reversed but said it was unclear why.

A candlestick was found just inside the room, he said, where pictures show charring along a wall near the door and melted children's toys.

Lentini said the inside of the bedroom closet door was closed at the time of the fire and that pressurized smoke pushed around the edges. If the fire did not start in the bedroom but burned through the hallway door, there would have been no pressurization of smoke in the room, he said.

The SBI does not comment on ongoing investigations. But Noelle Talley, an agency spokeswoman, said SBI agents are graduates of both Basic Law Enforcement Training and the SBI Special Agent Academy.

SBI arson investigators receive additional training specific to arson through the International Association of Arson Investigators, the Public Agency Training Council, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at a federal training center in Georgia.

Rebutting the affidavit

Right after the fire, Greene told investigators she woke up to the smoke alarm. She said she tried but couldn't save the children and ran out of the house for help.She dropped her cell phone on the way out and then twisted her ankle in a ditch while trying to run to a neighbor's, she told investigators. Her screams alerted the neighbor, who called 911. At least three minutes passed before Greene told the neighbor her house was on fire and her children were inside.

In a sworn affidavit, state investigators said Greene "admitted responsibility for the fire and made no attempts to either extinguish the fire or to remove her children from the home."

Lentini, however, said Greene was on "tranquilizers" when she was being questioned. He declined to describe the medication but said Greene was upset because she was summoned to the Cabarrus County Sheriff's Office at the same time a vigil was being held for her children.

"Ms. Greene is innocent," Lentini said. "The fire in which her children died was an accident."

Greene didn't use the phone in the house, he said, because the only one she had, a cordless model, was in the children's room.

The night before the fire, she packed her children's lunches in small insulated bags in their backpacks, he said. She included a note to Daniel's teacher about his overdue math and social studies worksheets. The envelope said: "Please Read."

"These are not activities of a woman getting ready to kill her children," Lentini said.

Expert's 2004 case

Lentini is one of four arson experts who compiled a report that concluded the state of Texas executed a man in 2004 based on scientifically invalid evidence. The experts were asked to perform an independent review of the evidence after an investigation by the Chicago Tribune that showed Todd Willingham had been found guilty on arson theories that have been repudiated by scientific advances. At Willingham's trial, the Tribune reported, fire investigators testified that the fire was set and pointed to "indicators" as proof. One of those indicators was "crazed glass," a phenomenon they said was caused by a fire that burned so hot and so fast that it could only have been caused by an accelerant.

But the report notes that scientific testing has shown that crazed glass can be caused by spraying water on hot glass; in effect, the act of extinguishing a fire was being used to prove that the fire was an arson.

Lentini has given expert testimony in more than 200 cases in several states since 1975, including North Carolina. Cabarrus Assistant District Attorney Ashlie Shanley declined to comment. But she issued this statement: "Our office is surprised that a person hired by the defense would express an opinion as to Greene's guilt or innocence, in light of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which expressly prohibit such comments by attorneys or people speaking on their behalf."

Defense request nixed

Greene's attorneys Lisa Dubs and Robert Campbell went to court Tuesday to ask that their expert be present when ATF agents reconstruct the fire in a test at a new facility in Annandale, Md.

Greene folded her hands on top of a softbound Bible as prosecutors argued that her attorneys would get the testing results in videotape.

Judge Michael Beale rejected the defense request.

ATF agents conduct a variety of tests at the Maryland center, including computer simulations in which the dimensions of a room and what it's made of are plugged in and then a virtual fire is set. Agents use the technology to watch how the fire burns and where it spreads.

The center also burns scale models of buildings so agents can record what happens. That's the test Cabarrus County prosecutors have asked for in this case.

Dubs and Campbell declined to comment but issued this statement: "As Ms. Greene's attorneys, we have deep concerns about the tremendous negative publicity associated with this case to this point. As a result, we do not feel that we can participate in fostering more publicity by commenting on the specifics of this case. However, Mr. Lentini is a well-respected expert in the field of arson."

Truth in Justice