Kansas City Star

Posted on Mon, Apr. 18, 2005

Acquittal can't restore lost time, confidence

By DONALD BRADLEY The Kansas City Star


Getting out of prison didn't free Jennifer Hall.

Friends call and ask her to go out, but she mostly stays home. She takes college courses — online so she does not have to leave the house.

Hall, who lives in Shawnee with her parents, was convicted in 2001 of starting a fire at Cass Medical Center in Harrisonville, where she worked as a respiratory therapist.

But last year a judge threw out the verdict and wrote a ruling highly critical of Hall's first attorney. At a second trial, in February, a jury took three hours to decide the fire was caused by an electrical short in an old clock cord.

By then Hall, now 24, had been paroled after serving one day short of 12 months.

Before prison, Hall hung out with friends and went to movies. She played piano and liked inline skating.

Now she rarely does any of those.

“Before this all happened, she was so confident and outgoing. … She thought she could do anything,” said Charles Bell, a lifelong friend. “That's gone now.”

Prosecutors and police stand by their case.

But the expert witness in the recent trial, an engineer with 20 years of experience in fire analysis, told The Star he had never seen an investigation so bungled.

Neither the chief investigator nor Hall's first attorney would comment. Harrisonville police say the investigator was experienced in arson cases.

Hall's parents spent more than $100,000 to clear her name. Her father installs fire alarms. Her mother is a dental receptionist. Both worked second jobs to pay lawyers. They took a second mortgage on their home.

But their daughter has given up being a respiratory therapist. She feels cheated out of a year of life and now sees the world as a scary place.

“I think everybody sees me different, too,” she said. “It's like everybody knows, even strangers … not what I did, but where I've been. I'm an ex-con, and I will never get away from that.

“I will always be the girl who went to prison.”

***

The Jan. 24, 2001, fire at Cass Medical Center in Harrisonville started in the respiratory therapy office. Hall was the sole therapist on duty. She had a key to the office.

The burn on her hand quickly made her the top suspect in an arson investigation by the Harrisonville Police Department. She was the only person injured.

The fire was extinguished quickly, but smoke and water damage was heavy.

Hall said she was nowhere near the office when the fire started but felt a responsibility to get back there after the fire broke out because a patient was in that area for a sleep study. She said she burned her hand on a hot door while crawling along a corridor.

Harrisonville Police Sgt. Wayne Schraml, who led the investigation, decided the fire was arson. And investigators found a potential motive: that Hall acted in anger against the hospital after she filed a sexual-harassment complaint against a co-worker.

Hall and her family were stunned by the theory, because the subject of the complaint had died 12 days before the fire.

On Feb. 13, 2001, prosecutors charged Hall with first-degree arson.

She was 20 years old when officers arrived at her parents' home the day before Valentine's Day and took her into custody.

Her parents followed the car to Harrisonville.

“It was just a terrible day,” said her mother, Debi Hall.

Things would get worse.

The Halls didn't know a lawyer, so they hired Gary Cover, an attorney from Clinton, Mo., with whom a relative had attended college.

At the trial, Cover tried to prove that Hall was nowhere near the area when the fire started, but court documents say he didn't challenge the arson finding or analyze items, such as the clock, that were in the respiratory therapy office.

On Sept. 26, 2001, in Johnson County Circuit Court in Warrensburg, Mo., where the trial had been moved, a jury convicted Hall of second-degree arson and recommended a three-year sentence.

At the sentencing, Hall told the judge — on her attorney's advice, she says — that she started the fire.

“He told me I would get a lighter sentence if I accepted responsibility,” she said. “I was 20 years old, and he was my lawyer. I figured he knew what he was doing.”

After two appeals were denied, Hall entered the Missouri women's prison at Vandalia on July 24, 2003.

“It was the first time she'd ever been away from home,” Debi Hall said.

***

The day his daughter was sentenced, Don Hall picked up the Yellow Pages and randomly pointed to the name of attorney Matthew J. O'Connor.

O'Connor quickly focused on Cover's decision not to enlist an expert witness. He filed a motion to set aside the verdict on grounds of ineffective counsel.

At a hearing March 16, 2004, Carl Martin, a mechanical engineer with 20 years of experience in fire investigation, testified that he had examined and tested items from the fire scene.

Martin concluded that the burn pattern was consistent with the fire being started by a short in the clock cord.

On June 30, 2004, Circuit Court Judge Jacqueline Cook granted the motion, writing that the state's case was largely circumstantial.

“Clearly,” she wrote, “an investigation of the fire items and the testimony of Martin, if presented to the jury, could have changed the outcome of the trial.”

Cook also wrote that Cover did not contact the insurance company that had the items, “nor did he take any legal action to obtain access to the items, including asking for an order of the court.”

She added, however, that she had seen no evidence that Cover advised Hall to lie about setting the fire.

The state was not compelled to retry Hall, who already had been released from prison.

But Hall wanted an acquittal to clear her name. Prosecutors wanted to prove the first verdict was not a mistake.

Martin again provided key testimony, calling into question investigative techniques by Harrisonville police.

“They decided this was arson way too quickly,” he told The Star. “They didn't do things that they were obligated to do.”

Lt. Doug Catron, Harrisonville police spokesman, said the department stood by its investigation. He added that Schraml, a former investigator for the Missouri fire marshal's office, is well-trained in arson investigation.

Schraml, who served with the fire marshal's office from May 1996 to July 1997, did not return telephone calls from The Star. He continues to work for the Police Department.

Cover, who remains in good standing with the Missouri Bar, also declined to comment. But according to Cook's decision, Cover said he concluded — after taking Schraml's deposition that the fire was arson — that it would not help the defense to examine items left from the fire. He also denied telling Hall to lie.

Cass County Prosecuting Attorney Teresa Hensley, who took office just days before the second trial, said she relied on her staff to make decisions about the case.

“They didn't do this for any malicious reason,” Hensley said. “Yes, the jury found her not guilty. That's fine; I accept that. I will stand by that judgment.

“That's why we have jury trials, and that's why we build courthouses.”

Cass Medical Center, when asked about Hall's acquittal, issued a statement saying that its employees cooperated fully with the investigation, trial and appeal. The statement added:

“Please note that it was the law enforcement authorities who investigated the fire” and pursued the charges, not the hospital. Jurors for the retrial were not told that Hall had already been to prison.

“We didn't want them to know,” O'Connor said.

But when they found out, he said, they couldn't believe it.

“The blood just left their faces.”

***

At the Hall home in Shawnee, a video camera hangs near the roofline. Don Hall said his daughter asked him to install it so she could see anyone who came to the front door.

The monitor is in her bedroom.

Like a soldier returning from battle, Jennifer Hall can't shake the fear.

“She's scared the police will come for her again,” her father said.

Bell has known Hall since they played together as children; their mothers were best friends. He wrote to her in prison.

“When we talk now, I know she has high hopes that things will get better,” he said. “But she's also not as strong as she used to be, and I think that's because she's scared.

“I live in Missouri, and she won't even come over here to visit. When she hears a siren, she cringes. It's terribly sad.”

Don and Debi Hall say they learned a costly lesson: Take extreme care in choosing an attorney. They say they failed with Cover and simply got lucky with O'Connor.

Also, they advise, learn about the court system — don't leave things to the lawyer.

As the case wound through the courts, the Halls didn't tell friends and neighbors about the situation.

“Jennifer didn't want anyone to know — she was embarrassed,” Don Hall said. “But I'm sure some of them knew something was up because all of a sudden Jennifer disappeared, and we were gone every weekend.”

The parents never missed a weekend visit in Vandalia — a three-hour drive from their home.

Sometimes, they took along Jennifer's 4-year-old niece, who was told the prison was a school.

Hall feels terrible about the costs, financial and otherwise, to her family.

“I'm glad they had it (the money), but now they don't have it,” said Hall, who is now training to be a customer-service representative for an insurance company. “I'm responsible, and I didn't do anything wrong.”

She would like to get back to being the happy, eager person she was before the fire, but heartaches and memories block her path. The accusation hurt her. Prison scared her. Now, like the year at Vandalia, her nights are long.

She says she has not heard from anyone at Cass Medical Center since the acquittal.

“I don't need a full-blown apology, but an acknowledgment would be nice,” she said. “Yes, I think I would like that.”

To reach Donald Bradley, call

(816) 234-7810 or send e-mail to dbradley@kcstar.com.



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