Part Three:
Out on bond, her life highly restricted, Terri finds a new interest
By ANNE SAKER, Staff Writer
     Hours after Terri Hinson was charged with capital murder and arson, a judge appointed Whiteville lawyer T. Craig Wright to represent her. In 25 years of practicing law, Wright had defended two people facing the death penalty. He lost both cases.
     Wright went to see his client in jail right away, and she told him the story. At the end, she said that from what she'd learned in her criminal justice classes at Southeastern Community College, she didn't think the State Bureau of Identification had probable cause to arrest her.
     I'll take care of everything, Wright said. Don't talk to anyone.
     Then he left.
     Terri went back to her cell, sat down and cried. The other women there patted her on the back and tried to comfort her. Later, sleep was almost impossible -- since her son had died, Terri's nightmares were filled with fire.
     Two weeks later, on Dec. 2, 1996, Terri was in line for the jail telephone so she could call her daughter when Wright brought bad news: A Columbus County grand jury had indicted Terri on charges of first-degree murder of her son, 17-month-old Joshua, first-degree arson, and the attempted murder of 4-year-old Brittany.
     But the lawyer also had good news: The state would pay $1,500 for the defense to hire a private fire investigator.
     Five days before Christmas, Terri was taken before Superior Court Judge William Gore Jr. for a bond hearing. Her lawyer and the prosecutor argued for a bit, then Gore continued the hearing until after the holidays.
     Christmas in jail? Terri wanted to scream. Brittany wanted to know where Mommy was. Didn't Mommy know that Santa Claus was coming? In her phone calls to Brittany, Terri could only repeat that she had to be someplace else now, but she'd be home. Soon.
     The bond hearing resumed in mid-January. Capital murder defendants are almost never let out of jail before trial, but, persuaded that Terri would not flee Columbus County, Gore set bond at $200,000.
    Terri's fiance, Rodney Strickland, was willing to put up some land he had inherited, but the property was tied up in his divorce. Terri's mother, Bernice, offered her house, but she'd had some government-funded work done on it, and the rules forbade using the house that way. The job of finding the money fell to Terri's sister Linda Smith. 
     Whiteville bondsman Bruce Sellers was understanding, but he couldn't take a $200,000 risk alone, and he doubted any other bondsman would, either. He promised to see what he could do and get in touch.
Staff Photo by Robert Willett
Linda Smith made arrangements to borrow $17,000 to pay for the bond for Terri Hinson, her sister. Smith sells manufactured homes for a living, such as this model, which she sold to herself.
    A few hours later, Sellers telephoned Linda to say he'd called in some favors and gotten three bonding companies to join him. He also would not charge her the customary 15 percent fee. Instead, Sellers would put up the bond if Linda paid him $17,000 in cash.
     Linda paced around her house. She knew a lot of people in Columbus County from her job selling manufactured homes, but $17,000 was a pile. Who had that kind of money?
     The next day, she asked a friend to borrow $17,000. The friend agreed.
     Monday was a holiday, so on Tuesday morning, Linda arrived at a Lumberton bank as the doors were unlocked, and her friend handed over a plain white business envelope fat with 170 $100 bills.
     Linda put the unsealed envelope on the seat beside her and drove to the Columbus County jail. She eyeballed the envelope every once in a while. That was a nice down payment on a custom triple-wide, right there.
     When Terri finally walked out of jail after 61 days, Linda hugged her and said, "Girl, you better be glad I love you."
     Linda never revealed the name of the benefactor. But she arranged a repayment schedule of $1,000 a month, and Terri's brother, Harry, and sister Ann promised to kick in. But after three months, Harry and Ann could no longer contribute, so Terri's mother cashed in her life savings.
     Terri was out from behind bars, but she was not free. The judge put her on electronic house arrest, which meant wearing a monitor about the size of a pager with a heavy plastic band. A county official who was one of Terri's old classmates from Southeastern secured the device around her left ankle.
     The monitor came with an electronic box that Terri had to keep in her house. An office in Raleigh sent a random signal to the box asking whether the monitor was nearby. If the box ever caught Terri out of range, she'd be back in jail. At least once a day, she heard the electronic box click, and she knew the authorities in Raleigh were checking on her. Terri always wore jeans or long pants so that Brittany never saw the monitor.
     The Department of Social Services allowed Terri to visit her daughter on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 5 p.m. It wasn't a lot, and they couldn't go outside and play, much less go to McDonald's for cheeseburgers as they had before. Instead, Terri planned art projects or had a stack of books to read.
     Sometimes, their visits ended on a good note. Sometimes, Brittany wouldn't stop crying. Terri tried to explain: There are people who don't want us to be together right now. But one day, I'm going to come for you, and we'll be going home. Soon.
     Terri was pleased to see how quickly Brittany picked up things. Her Meemaw started reading the 23rd Psalm aloud at bedtime, and it wasn't long before Brittany could recite the prayer from memory.
     Gore forbade Terri from going to church but allowed her to visit her lawyer to prepare for her January trial. It seemed to Terri that she never heard good news from Wright.
     In one of their first conferences after her release, Terri learned that the private fire expert Wright hired to assist in her case was no help at all.
     The expert had examined the house at 101 Wall Street in Tabor City, and he concluded that the fire was set in the closet. Wright said the expert also was friendly with SBI Special Agent Matt White, the chief investigator in Terri's case, and after going through the house, the expert and White had stood outside and talked for a while.
     The prosecution then made noises about calling the expert as a state witness. Wright asked Gore to gag his own expert -- a request so unusual that Gore had a paralegal research the question before he ruled for the defense.
     Wright minimized the damage that expert could do to Terri, but the defense still was unarmed against the prosecution, and Wright said the state would not provide any more money to the defense for experts. If Terri wanted another opinion, she'd have to pay for it.
     Bernice borrowed $1,500 from a friend to hire Wyman Sox, a South Carolina electrician, to look over the house. Rodney repaid that debt.
     Terri's lawyer gave her copies of statements that the neighbors, the firefighters, the rescue workers and the cops gave White after the fire. Terri was stunned to read that the people on the scene said they didn't think she was panicky or upset during the fire. How do they know how someone is supposed to act at a time like that?
     Terri wanted Wright to do more digging on the case. She sent Rodney and Linda to the library for her, and she called Wright with questions, but she didn't get the feeling he had answers. Her every call ended with the lawyer counseling patience and advising her to keep quiet. He said there was nothing more to be done. Terri dropped her research.
     Terri grew bored, which was almost as bad as her recurring nightmares. She complained to Rodney and Linda about being cooped up all day, just waiting for her visits with Brittany and her Monday trips to Josh's grave.
     Rodney asked Terri to keep the books for his construction business. For a while, she used a word processor she'd had for years, but it was slow and couldn't run a spreadsheet. She needed something more powerful.
     She telephoned a Circuit City in Fayetteville and talked to a clerk for more than half an hour about makes and models and options. The next day, Bernice put down her McAlpin's credit card for a Compaq Presario computer and a printer. The total was $2,493.09.
     As soon as Rodney brought the boxes into the house, Terri unpacked them and got everything hooked up in an hour. She showed Rodney how the computer could create standard contracts and other business forms as well as keep the books for his company.
     The computer also had software to go on-line. The computer class Terri had taken at Southeastern didn't explain the Internet or anything like that. But the software wasn't mysterious, so Terri signed up for Weblink's $20-a-month service.
     On a whim one night, she brought up a search engine on her screen and typed in the word "fire." 
Part Four
Terri's Fire
Truth in Justice