JEFFERSON CITY (AP) - A woman accused of setting a house fire that killed her teenage son cannot be tried for murder, arson or assault because a judge originally declared a mistrial, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
To make Sandra Kemper, 50, face trial would violate the U.S. Constitution’s protection against double jeopardy, the court said in its unanimous ruling.
Kemper had faced a first-degree murder charge for the death of 15-year-old Zachariah Kemper in a Nov. 16, 2001, fire at their home in the St. Louis suburb of Black Jack. Sandra Kemper and several others escaped the fire.
Police said Kemper twice confessed to setting the fire and planned to collect on insurance. But those statements came after she was first given a polygraph test, in which she denied any involvement in the fire, and was told by a detective that she was lying.
During her trial, St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III allowed Kemper’s attorneys to introduce evidence about the polygraph test after prosecutors played her two taped confessions. A defense polygraph expert testified the results actually showed an 88 percent probability that Kemper was telling the truth when she denied involvement in the fire.
A day after that testimony, Vincent said he had originally allowed the polygraph testimony because he thought it was relevant to whether the Kemper was coerced into giving a confession. But upon further examination, he said, the polygraph testimony was inadmissible as evidence. The judge then declared a mistrial.
The Supreme Court said that not all mistrials bar future trials. But in this case, the high court said Kemper had strongly objected to the mistrial and the judge had not shown a mistrial was necessary, but rather appeared to have simply changed his mind about the polygraph evidence.
The ruling written by Chief Justice Michael Wolff said Vincent could have used a less drastic remedy to the problem, such as instructing jurors that the polygraph results were not to be considered as proof of Kemper’s guilt or innocence, but rather were to be used to evaluate the circumstances surrounding her confession statements.
The judge had no comment about yesterday’s ruling, court personnel said.
An attorney for Kemper said her client was ecstatic about the Supreme Court decision. Kemper has remained jailed without bond for more than four years, said attorney Susan Roach. But she cannot be released until the Supreme Court allows time for an appeal and sends Vincent the paperwork making the ruling official.
"There’s no doubt in my mind that she’s actually innocent, based upon the polygraph results and the arson evidence," Roach said.
When Kemper told police she started the fire, "she was simply reciting something that she thought they wanted to hear," Roach added.
The family’s insurance company paid a life insurance policy on Kemper’s son, because it could not rule out the possibility that the fire was started by a cigarette, Roach said. But Kemper had to return her share of the money after she was charged with the crimes, she said.