Independent Mail

Jury: Don Kinsela not guilty on both counts
By Mike Ellis
Posted December 4, 2012

PICKENS, SC — A jury took less than an hour to find Don Kinsela not guilty of killing his wife in a July 2010 fire.

The verdict was quickly read as Kinsela burst into tears, hugging family members — including the parents of his dead wife, Cheryl Kinsela.

Kinsela’s in-laws have supported him emotionally and financially in the two and a half years since the fire, sitting behind him throughout the four days of testimony before jurors and two previous days of pretrial testimony.

Kinsela post-verdict
Don Kinsela, left, bares his emotions after a jury reaches a not guilty verdict after a long trial where he was accused of burning and killing his wife in July 2010. Standing next to Kinsela is his mother-in-law, center, and daughter, right, both of whom have supported Kinsela since the fire.

Kinsela’s daughter, Melissa Coker, expects to give birth to her son, Kaiden, in about two weeks. She embraced her father, as she had throughout the trial, in tears when he was cleared of the charges.

“I wouldn’t have made it through this without my family,” Kinsela said, as he touched his daughter’s belly. “I get to watch my grandbaby grow up.”

Shortly before the verdict was read, Kinsela, whose home and yard were described as neat and clean, placed a foam coffee cup on the defense table, using a pack of yellow sticky notes as a coaster. He handed another cup of water to his mother-in-law and sat waiting for the verdict.

Cheryl Kinsela died of smoke inhalation on July 3, 2010.

In closing arguments, 13th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins said Kinsela had used a lighter to ignite gasoline that spread to stacks of pine needles and shredded paper in the outbuilding as they were taking a break from yard work on a Saturday afternoon.

Defense attorney Druanne White said the science and investigation techniques used by prosecutors had been sloppy and the results did not show that it was anything other than a tragic accident that “took Cheryl from her husband, her daughter, her parents.”

“It was about bad, bad, bad, bad, bad science and untrustworthy, untrustworthy investigators,” White said in her closing statement. She said the impressive-seeming presentations by investigators were like the “Wizard of Oz” with nothing solid behind the curtain.

“Have you ever heard of such a concocted scheme?” she asked jurors Tuesday morning.
Greg and Cheryl Kinsela
Greg and Cheryl Kinsela
“I’m going to lure my wife behind a corner, surround myself with flammable things, throw gasoline all over the place while I’m standing there?”

Kinsela did not testify during the trial.

The jurors heard day after day of sophisticated fire science from state and federal arson investigators, who said they examined eight possible ignition sources and through testing and experience had ruled out all theories except for an open flame, meaning an intentional fire because Kinsela’s statements said he was not smoking in the building.

The investigators were countered by two expert witnesses for the defense who are nationally recognized fire scientists and authors of fire textbooks that were cited by state and federal investigators. Despite attempts by prosecutors to discredit the expert witnesses as “hired guns” who were unable to concede even basic points made by investigators, jurors sided with the defense.

Video tapes played by prosecutors showed several fiery experiments conducted at a fire laboratory that is part of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division experts and Easley police officers were also part of the investigation.

The expert defense witnesses similarly went into great detail, systematically criticizing the science behind nearly all of the theories of the investigators and also finding fault with the process used to document the fire scene.

Before jurors were taken back into their chambers around lunchtime, Judge Letitia Verdin said both the defense attorney and prosecutor delivered excellent closing arguments Tuesday morning. She said that after the lengthy trial, the jurors were now well versed on analyzing complicated fire science.

The jury, with nine women and three men, reached a verdict over lunch, eating pizza from Pizza Inn.

Wilkins said, in a statement after the verdict, that it was a difficult-to-prove case.

“Because essentially what you are doing is proving a negative,” he said. “The defendant is saying it was an accident, it happened this way. What we had were experts who testified that it could not have happened that way and therefore must have been intentionally set. Obviously we felt we had the evidence to convict, but the jury saw it differently.”

White said that the verdict was vindication, supporting what Kinsela had said since the day of the fire: that it was a tragic accident.

Kinsela said after the verdict that he would be trying to piece back his life and he gave thanks to God and to his family, as family members surrounded him and shed many tears.

“This was horrible,” he said. “It’s the worst thing that happened in my life.”

His ankle monitor was removed and he walked out of the courtroom a free man.

He walked a few paces ahead of his pregnant daughter to a car in downtown Pickens, Kinsela will be there for his grandson’s birth. And he promised he will be there as soon-to-be-born Kaiden grows up.

Arson Truth in Justice