Louisville Courier-Journal

Prosecution likely to retry St. Matthews shop owner in arson case

Jan. 14, 2012

Susan Lukjan
Susan Lukjan talks about the state Court of Appeals ruling overturning her conviction for burning down her St. Matthews business in Louisville, KY. Jan. 13, 2012 / Frankie Steele/Special to The C-J

Shortly after the state Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of a St. Matthews shop owner who was sentenced to 12 years for allegedly burning down her business, prosecutors said it was likely that they would take the case to trial again.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Leland Hulbert said his office is still reviewing Friday’s appeals court decision, and could appeal it, but that if he and the attorney for Susan Kay Lukjan could not reach a plea agreement, there will likely be second trial.

Thomas Clay, Lukjan’s attorney, said there would be no plea bargain, even though there is a danger that Lukjan, who was released on shock probation a year ago, could go back to prison if a new jury convicts her.

Lukjan said in an interview that she understands the dangers of a new trial, but wants to clear her name.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” she said of a possible re-trial. “Like I tell my kids, the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing. This was totally unfair and I didn’t do anything. I just feel like when something is wrong, you have to stand up for right.”

The Court of Appeals ruled there were two reversible errors in the 2010 trial: that Lukjan’s defense was not allowed to have its fire scene expert testify and that the judge let three experts for the prosecution testify without properly finding out if they were qualified.

Clay said their expert witness will testify that the 2006 fire at Campbell's Gourmet Cottage on Sherrin Avenue across from Trinity High School was of “unknown origins” and disagree with the conclusions of the prosecution’s experts, that the fire was arson.

Clay has repeatedly criticized the Circuit Court judge who has handled the case, Audra Eckerle, claiming she had shown a consistent bias against Lukjan. Clay asked the judge at one point to recuse herself, claiming she had abused her authority.

On Friday, Clay said he will renew that request if there is another trial.

In an interview, Eckerle said she could not talk about details of the case, but defended her handling of it, saying the appeals court, in ruling that Lukjan’s expert could testify, was creating new law in allowing someone without a private investigator’s license to testify about the cause of a fire.

Clay disagreed that the ruling created new law.

Eckerle also said she did review the qualifications of the prosecution’s witnesses. And she added that she will take any recusal request by Clay under consideration but that she previously found no reason to recuse herself.

In May 2010, Lukjan was convicted of second-degree arson, burning personal property to defraud an insurer and fraudulent insurance acts over $300 in the destruction of her business, Campbell's Gourmet Cottage.

She spent time at various Kentucky prisons before being released on shock probation in January 2011.

Lukjan said on Friday that the verdict ruined her life and she is still struggling, living with friends, though she recently started a new business, selling homemade tamales out of a few local stores.

“I’ve lost pretty much everything, my car, my business, my home,” she said at Clay’s office, adding later, however, that she “couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.”

“Today is my one year anniversary of being released, so Friday the 13th is a good day.”

Reporter Jason Riley can be reached at (502) 584-2197.

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