Halkides: Han Tak Lee and Faulty Arson Lab Work

December 14, 2023by Naomi Cramer


Ed. Word: Chris Halkides has been sort sufficient to attempt to make us lawyers smarter by dumbing down science sufficient that we now have a small probability of understanding the way it’s getting used to wrongfully convict and, in some instances, execute defendants. Chris graduated from the College of Wisconsin-Madison with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and teaches biochemistry, natural chemistry, and forensic chemistry on the College of North Carolina, Wilmington.

In 1989, Han Tak Lee and his daughter had been staying in a 1000 sq. foot cabin in Pennsylvania when a hearth destroyed it, claiming his daughter’s life. In 1990, Mr. Lee was convicted of first diploma homicide and arson, and sentenced to life with out parole. The proof towards him included figuring out one ignition level of the hearth by the presence of crazed glass, skinny, irregular fractures. The collapsed furnishings and mattress springs, spill patterns (pour patterns?), and deep charring and alligatoring of wooden had been additionally taken as proof of a very popular fireplace; due to this fact a intentionally set fireplace. Crazed glass is created by chilly water hitting scorching windowpanes. Nor are collapsed furnishings springs, pour patterns, alligator patterns or depth of charring of wooden accepted any longer as proof of arson.

With a purpose to perceive the laboratory proof towards Mr. Lee, one should have an understanding of what gasoline is and the way it’s detected. Hydrocarbons are a category of chemical compounds that include hydrogen, carbon, and no different parts. Gasoline is a mix of hydrocarbons having 7-12 carbon atoms. About 40% of gasoline consists of isoalkanes, compounds of the system CNH2N+2, wherein the carbon chain is branched, not linear. 20-50% of gasoline consists of alkylbenzenes, a lot of which have the system C8H10. Many frequent home goods (turpentine, shoe soles, and many others.) have hydrocarbons in them that aren’t gasoline.

Gasoline chromatography (GC) makes use of a column with a waxy liquid to separate molecules on the idea of the fraction of time they spend stationary (dissolved within the waxy liquid) versus the fraction of time they spend transferring alongside a provider gasoline. A gasoline chromatogram is a hint wherein time is then displayed alongside x-axis and detector output is displayed alongside the y-axis. The time at which the sign reaches its most detected depth is the retention time of that compound. Compounds with a better variety of carbon atoms usually have larger boiling factors and longer retention occasions than compounds with fewer carbons. The relative sign areas inside a mix are associated to the relative quantities of the compounds.

Some detectors reply to many lessons of compounds with out giving additional indication of their identities. Due to this fact, the equality of the retention occasions between an ordinary versus a questioned compound might happen as a result of they’re similar compounds or completely different compounds that emerged from the column on the similar time coincidentally. When GC is instantly adopted by mass spectrometry (MS), the mixed discriminatory energy is enormously elevated. Mass spectrometry provides the mass of every compound and its fragments, which frequently results in its unambiguous identification. The Patricia Stallings case would in all probability not have come to trial if GC-MS had been used as an alternative of GC alone.

Mr. Lee’s case returned to the courtroom in 2014, and among the focus then turned to the opposite testimony that was used to convict him. One of many investigators carried out calculations indicating that 62 gallons of dwelling heating gasoline and 12.2 kilos of gasoline had been used to set the hearth. But the report said that solely a furnace gasoline filter and a container subsequent to the gasoline tank by the cabin produced proof of an ignitable substance. The prosecution used outcomes from gasoline chromatography to allege that Mr. Lee’s clothes contained “a risky substance with a hydrocarbon vary of C7-C22,” that means that the substance was a mix of molecules with 7 to 22 carbon atoms. By the point that the case was appealed, the gasoline chromatograms had been now not out there.

The laboratory chemist who testified advised the presence of a considerable amount gasoline or Coleman gasoline, regardless of no point out of this within the report. Paradoxically, he additionally testified that there wasn’t a enough amount of gasoline to substantiate by his instrument. He claimed that the vary of hydrocarbons (that means the variety of carbon atoms) discovered on Mr. Lee’s clothes was the identical as discovered on plastic gadgets (in all probability a glove and a plastic jug) within the toilet. Mark Hansen wrote that the chemist testified that, “his evaluation of the proof revealed chemical hydrocarbon profiles that had been according to the identical combination of dwelling heating gasoline and gasoline or Coleman gasoline” that had been claimed to be the accelerants by a unique witness. The putative presence of hydrocarbons with as much as 22 carbon atoms led the chemist to recommend that two accelerants (gasoline and gasoline oil) had been used. But he denied beneath oath that mass spectrometry would have helped determine the opposite liquid.

The rivalry that 62 gallons of gasoline oil might be used but none detected within the fireplace particles beggars perception. The calculations suggesting this amount of accelerant had been fallacious. Within the absence of information from mass spectrometry, the declare that hydrocarbons had been current on Mr. Lee’s clothes is very doubtful. Aldehydes, for instance, are typically discovered on clothes, and aldehydes have not less than one oxygen atom, placing them into a unique class from hydrocarbons. Nor would discovering hydrocarbons on his clothes be the identical factor as discovering gasoline. A declare of identification of two mixtures primarily based upon the similarity within the variety of carbon atoms is nonsense. For one factor, the heights of the peaks within the chromatogram must be related; the parts of turpentine have an analogous vary of retention occasions in comparison with the parts of gasoline, but they’re very completely different hydrocarbons. The declare that MS wouldn’t have been useful is sort of unattainable to ascribe to incompetence; this and different issues within the chemist’s testimony in all probability originate from his consciously making an attempt to bolster the prosecution’s case. This drawback is distinct from unconscious bias that plagued the Brandon Mayfield fingerprint case or the hearth aboard the NZS Bonhomme Richard.

Mr. Lee was launched circa 2014 and remained free regardless of an attraction by the prosecution. Given the period, the usage of crazed glass as a putative indicator of arson isn’t a surprise. The diploma to which laboratory outcomes had been misinterpreted to suit the prosecution’s narrative, discrepancies between the report and the testimony, and the shortage of availability of the GC chromatograms for defense evaluation, are equally disconcerting.

For additional studying

Valena E. Beety & Jennifer D. Oliva, Proof on Hearth, 97 N.C. L. Rev. 483 (2019).
Mark Hansen “Lengthy-held beliefs about arson science have been debunked after a long time of misuse” ABA Journal 1 December 2015.

John Lentini “A Calculated Arson,” Hearth & Arson Investigator April 1999 20-25.



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by Naomi Cramer

Auckland Lawyer for FIRST TIME Offenders Seeking to Avoid a Conviction. Family Law Expert in Child Care Custody Disputes. If you are facing Court Naomi will make you feel comfortable every step of the way.  As a consummate professional your goals become hers, with customer service as our top priority. It has always been Naomi’s philosophy to approach whatever you do in life with bold enthusiasm and pure dedication. Complement this with her genuine passion for equal justice and rights for all and you have the formula for success. Naomi is a highly skilled Court lawyer having practised for more than 20 years. She serves the greater Auckland region and can travel to represent clients throughout NZ With extensive experience, an analytical eye for detail, and continuing legal education Naomi’s skill set will maximise your legal rights whilst offering a holistic approach that best fits your individual needs. This is further enhanced with her high level of support and understanding. Naomi will redefine what you expect from your legal professional, facilitating a seamless experience from start to finish.   Her approachable and adaptive demeanor serves her well when working with the diverse cultures that make up the Auckland region. Blend her open and honest approach to her transparent process and you can see why she routinely delivers the satisfying results her clients deserve. If you want to maximise your legal rights, we recommend you book an appointment with Naomi today so she can detail the steps for you to achieve your goals. 

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