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(CBS) In 1996, Sheila Bryan was just another small-town mother, living with her husband in Omega, Ga., happily raising their two daughters Kari and Karla. "I'm a mom, and proud to be a mom," she says.
But everything changed on Aug. 18, 1996. Susan Spencer reports on a family struggling with an enormous burden.
That August afternoon, Bryan and her mother, 82-year-old Freda Weeks, went out for a drive in the Georgia countryside. "We just went riding around for a little bit, just reminiscing, which we've done for years," Bryan says.
Bryan, a mother of two, says she became momentarily distracted and lost control of the car. When her car finally stopped, it was at the bottom of an 18-foot embankment. At that point her mother was unresponsive, Bryan says. She couldn't turn the car off, she also says.
She got out but couldn't reach her mother: The doors had somehow locked, Bryan says. She climbed the embankment, looked back and saw smoke. Coincidentally, her cousin, Danny Weeks, was driving down the road. She flagged him down. He jumped out and sent his wife to call the fire department. He ran and got a bucket of water, but by then the fire was out of control.
Shortly after the crash the Georgia Bureau of Investigation began investigating. Although the medical examiner said Freda Weeks had probably died of heart failure, possibly before the fire began, the bureau considered the case suspicious.
"No damage to the vehicle, no personal items in the car, the gas cap of the car was missing and the fuel door was open," says Georgia Bureau of Investigation Agent John Heinen, citing aspects of the crash scene that made him suspicious.
More incriminating, though, was the report from the state fire investigators. After sifting through the remains of Bryan's car, they concluded that the fire had been deliberately set.
On Dec. 18, 1997, Georgia indicted Bryan for arson and murder and argued that she purposely drove the car down the embankment and then set it on fire. Why? According to prosecutors, she wanted to collect on the auto liability insurance.
Bryan's case went to trial on Aug. 28, 1998. The state's experts testified that the fire was deliberately set, with an accelerant, even though the lab results showed no evidence of any.
The trial lasted a week. After deliberating for eight hours, the jury found Bryan guilty. She was sentenced to life plus 20 years in prison.
"I just went numb," remembers Karlas Bryan, a house painter married to the accused woman for 28 years. "I had resigned to the fact that our life would be four or five hours together once a week at the prison."
"You think because you're innocent that things won't go wrong," Sheila Bryan says. "You're mistaken."
A few days after the sentence, Sheila Bryan went to jail and was soon transferred to Pulaski State Prison. Her lawyer appealed the case.
This Time She Uses A Different Defense. Which Experts Will The Jury Believe?
Even after the Georgia Supreme Court threw out the murder conviction, Sheila Bryan was still not in the clear.
The state of Georgia decided to try Bryan again for murdering her mother.
The court did not, however, throw out the state's key evidence: the testimony of its fire experts, who told the jury that the fire was started with a highly flammable liquid. Though two labs found no trace of it in all the materials taken from Bryan's car, the experts said a liquid was used. Their evidence: the burn pattern in the car, which pointed to arson, they said.
As the new trial approached, Bryan savored her newfound freedom. She spent time with her daughters and husband and got a part-time job delivering meals to the elderly
Bryan's second trial began in January. Defense witnesses told the jury that Bryan and her mother had a close, loving relationship. The prosecution argued that Bryan could not take the stress of caring for Weeks.
This time the defense focused on another potential explanation for the fire, not mentioned in the first trial. The ignition switches in many Fords and Mercurys made from 1984 to 1993 have a controversial history. In some cases, the switches have caused fires. In 1996, Ford recalled some of those vehicles. While Ford says the switch on Bryan's car was different than those recalled, critics say it poses the same potential hazard.
The defense's first fire expert, Chris Bloom, said in this case that the ignition switch could have sparked the blaze.
The state argued, however, the fire was started on purpose.
The defense grilled one of the state's witnesses, private fire investigator Ralph Newell, about his ties to Ford. In 1995, he was a consultant to Ford, heading a task force it set up to investigate its ignition switches. That investigation played a role in Ford's recall decision. In 1999, his consulting company grossed about $150,000 from Ford.
Both Newell and another prosecution witness, fire expert Ronnie Dobbins, told the jury that the ignition switch had long ago been ruled out as a possible cause. Both men testified that only a flammable fluid could cause the intense, irregular burn pattern they saw. But on cross-examination, Dobbins was forced to admit that he didn't know what an ignition switch looked like.
Hurst also challenged the state's argument that the burn pattern proved that Bryan's door was open when the fire began. The prosecution maintained that the pattern showed that Bryan had started the fire and then closed the door.
Expert witness Hurst told the jury that the pattern could have resulted even with the door closed. Because that door seal was not airtight, melted plastic flowed under the door, he said.
"Those two patterns there were not caused by an accelerant," he told the jury. "Those were caused by flowing plastic. And there is no doubt in my mind about that."
After a four-day trial, the case went to the jury. After three hours of deliberation, on Jan. 28, 2000, it found Bryan not guilty on all counts. Bryan and her family were ecstatic. "None of us are going to be the same," says her husband Karlas Bryan.
With the trial over, Sheila Bryan can begin to come to grips with the loss of her mother, she says. She takes comfort in the belief that Weeks died before the fire started.
What helps even more is remembering how her mother lived, Sheila Bryan says. "I always tried to be a strong person," she says. "Mother was a strong person."
2000, CBS Worldwide Inc.