John Lentini ‘69, Fire Investigator/Expert
“New College taught me to think outside the box, before thinking outside the box was cool.”
AOC: Natural Sciences
John Lentini graduated from New College around the time of the first oil embargo, which he says “was a bad time to be a chemist.” His father, whose career was in law enforcement, suggested that he check out forensic science. Today, Lentini is one of the country’s pre-eminent fire investigators. Since 1975, he has given expert testimony in over 200 cases in civil and criminal court. He now operates Scientific Fire Analysis, LLC out of his laidback home in Big Pine Key, Florida.
How did you become an arson specialist?
I always liked Atlanta and was offered a job in the Georgia State Crime Lab. They tried to teach me to do microscopic hair comparisons (a forensic science discipline now in much disrepute), but I was not adept at this task. My boss asked if I would be interested in doing the arson chemistry work, and I found it to be easy to understand and explain, and I enjoyed it. I was the “go to guy” for fire debris analysis for the next three years. I entered the private sector in 1977. Much of what I saw in the field was troubling, because it did not seem to have much of a scientific underpinning. As I gained more experience, I began to question some of the conventional wisdom used by fire investigators.
What do you like best and least about what you do?
What I like best about my work is overcoming the tremendous challenge of figuring out exactly what happened to cause a devastating fire. There are many times when it is just not possible to figure it out, but there is nothing more satisfying than finding the exact square centimeter where the fire began and the exact mode of ignition.
One of the more disturbing aspects of my work occurs when I interact with the judicial system. Although the adversary system might be the worst system for determining the truth except for every other judicial system that’s ever been invented, in my experience, the “search for the truth” is nothing more than a search for trial victory. Frequently, the players don’t care what really happened; they just want to win their case.
What has been the biggest thrill of your career?
Helping to obtain acquittals and dismissals of innocent people falsely accused of arson or homicide is by far the most satisfying professional experience than I have ever had. I spend a lot of time working with the Innocence Project, helping attorneys learn to recognize baloney that is put forward as science.
How did New College influence the way you work?
New College taught me to think outside the box, before thinking outside the box was cool. In assessing circumstantial evidence, which is what I do every day, keeping the context in mind is the most important thing.
What advice do you have for current students?
Take some risks with your academic program. It is unlikely that you will have many chances to take a course just for fun.
I expect that in the future, I will spend less time doing case work and more time teaching. For much of my career, my questioning of the conventional wisdom made me an outsider. In the last few years, however, I have received far more speaking invitations that I have been able to accommodate.