GIST: It’s impossible to know what caused the 1986 fire that killed two teenage girls, a defense arson expert testified Thursday in the retrial of a man convicted of setting the fatal fire three decades ago. “The cause of the fire is undetermined. We don’t have enough data to determine the cause,” John Lentini of Scientific Fire Analysis of Florida said in Rensselaer County Court. Troy’s arson investigators looking into the Sept. 1, 1986 blaze in the second-floor apartment at 17 108th St. in Lansingburgh failed to take photographs thoroughly depicting the fire, didn’t adequately document the evidence they collected and made unfounded assumptions about the cause of the fire, Lentini said. Richard J. Wright, 50, is being retried in a bench trial by State Supreme Court Justice Andrew Ceresia on four counts of second-degree murder and a count of first-degree arson.  Ceresia overturned Wright’s 1988 conviction on the five counts and his prison sentence of 25 years to life. Wright has been incarcerated since he was arrested as a 17-year-old in January 1987, charged starting with the fire that that killed Tara Gilbert, 14, and Meredith Pipino, 13 as they slept after spending the day at an amusement park. Lentini was the only witness called by defense attorney Michael P. McDermott.  Lentini provided the technical expertise to show that there was not a clear-cut explanation for what started the fire. Lentini agreed with ATF Senior Special Agent Mark Meeks that the fire started in the rear of the apartment. Unlike Marks, who identified the second-floor back porch as the place where the fire originated, Lentini said it was either the kitchen or the porch. Lentini disputed Meeks’ finding that the fire was incendiary and that a Molotov cocktail was thrown on to the back porch starting the blaze. Lentini said there was no evidence to prove the prosecution’s contention that a broken beer bottle found at the fire scene was used as the Molotov cocktail container. The prosecution earlier relied on the testimony of Martin “Danny” Williams, who said Wright told him he set the fire by throwing the bottle, but didn’t mean to kill the two girls. The fire could be a case of arson, Lentini said during an aggressive cross-examination by Special Prosecutor Jasper Mills.  But during redirect questioning by McDermott, Lentini said the cause of the fire could have been accidental or a result of arson. The problems with the old case arise at its very beginning during the investigation, Lentini said. “We had people working in what were the dark ages of fire investigation.” The result, he said, was incomplete documentation, a slim selection of photos that fail to show the overall scene including no depiction of the kitchen appliances, electrical box or wall sockets and analysis based on faulty science.  Lentini said the Troy police said the fire began on the first floor, not the second. Mills was relentless in cross-examining Lentini, attacking his professional credentials and questioning his testimony and reports written for prior arson cases. Near the end of the prosecution case, a portion of Wright’s 1988 testimony, when he took the stand in his own defense, was read into the record.  In that 30-year-old testimony, Wright explained his movements throughout the early morning hours of Sept. 1, 1986, from attending a party to going home then ending up at the fire scene to watch what was happening after driving around the Lansingburgh and North Central neighborhoods in his father’s car. Wright stared straight ahead for 45 minutes it took the court reporter to read his testimony. Ceresia will hear the closing arguments Friday morning.  The judge will then consider the case and render a verdict."

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