Accused mother slowly builds defense, in part upon new friendship
|By ANNE SAKER, Staff Writer
In early January, as her mother lay in the
hospital recovering from a stroke, Terri Hinson Strickland got a call from
her sister in Mississippi. Concerned about their mother, Ann Hinson said
she had telephoned Terri's lawyer and blessed him out for doin g nothing
about Terri's case. She warned T. Craig Wright that she would come to Columbus
County to picket the court- house -- and she'd tip off the TV stations
and newspapers, too.
Staff Photo By Robert WillettTerri Strickland has photos of Josh, who died in the fire, and Brittany on her computer.
| William Wood, another Whiteville
lawyer appointed by the court to work with Wright on Terri's defense, wrote
a letter to Hurst, saying: "We have spoken with Ms. Hinson concerning the
possibility of your assistance in her case, and she is most enthusiasti
c about the possibility of your participation."
Wood enclosed with his letter a stack of documents including photographs that gave Hurst a good look at the fire scene. The photographs had been taken by Wyman Sox, the South Carolina electrician hired by Terri's mother to examine the burned house at 101 Wall St. in Tabor City.
Hurst e-mailed Terri: "Well, apparently the door has been opened for me in your case. Let's see what we can do."
Since October 1997, when Terri contacted Hurst over the Internet, they had exchanged e-mail almost daily, sometimes three times a day, about the Oct. 20, 1996, fire. Terri was charged with the first-degree murder of her 17-month-old son, Josh, the attemp ted murder of her daughter, Brittany, 5, and first-degree arson. If a jury convicted her, she could face the death penalty.
From the documents and photographs, Hurst concluded that the findings by the State Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and two insurance investigators were just plain wrong.
The foundation of the case against Terri rested on a V-shaped burn pattern in the closet of Josh's second-floor bedroom. Drawing from years of tradition, the government and insurance investigators determined that the V-shaped pattern marked the fire's po int of origin -- the closet. The SBI reported that since there was nothing in the closet that could ignite the fire by itself, someone must have set it.
More current thinking about burn patterns says that the V can reveal where a fire started, but sometimes it simply shows where a fire burned last.
Hurst's study of the fire told him that the point of origin wasn't the closet. It was the attic.
The electrician's photographs served as evidence for Hurst's theory. If the fire had started in the closet, it would have destroyed Josh's bedroom before burning the hole in the closet ceiling and traveling into the attic. But the photographs showed that the damage in the attic was much worse than in the bedroom.
The electrician also discovered something else. A segment of the old, cloth-wrapped wire in the attic directly above the closet ceiling had been cut and removed from the house. Apparently, no one knew who did it.
Hurst offered to write a report about the fire that the defense lawyers could present to the prosecutor before trial. The lawyers accepted.
Hurst asked Terri to help him with the report, and he recommended some books for her to read, including a guide called NFPA 921, published by the National Fire Protection Association. While Hurst considered the reference work flawed in places, NFPA 921 k illed off a lot of old wives' tales about fires -- such as V-shaped burn patterns always pointing to the place where a fire started.
Terri did research on the Internet about fires and passed it on to Hurst, who was so pleased with her work, he counseled, "You may want to become a fire analyst."
| One day, Terri realized
that in all the exchanges of documents and information, there was one photograph
Hurst had never seen. She sent it to him over the Internet.
In his messy home office, Hurst stared at the photograph.
"Josh was a lovely child," he wrote Terri. "I am at a loss for words."
The report underwent several drafts, but Hurst's thinking remained the same:
The cloth wrapping around the old wiring in 101 Wall St. had rotted with age, and in some places, wire was exposed. The hole in the roof allowed rain from Hurricane Fran and later storms to fall on the wires and the attic's cellulosic insulation -- groun d-up newspaper treated long ago with flame retardant, a common material in houses of that age.
Staff Photo By Robert WillettElectrician Wyman Sox examined the fire scene and discovered that a segment of wire that ran over the closet ceiling had been removed. He took this photo to show where the wire was cut.
| The water collected traces of minerals from the
insulation. As electricity passed through the wires, it boiled off the
water. The resulting concentration of minerals gave off a small, hot, gaseous
discharge, which left behind a thin track of carbon just a fraction of
an inch away from the old wire. With the slightest change in condition,
the old wire would touch that carbon, triggering an arc and causing the
carbon to glow. The heat ignited the cellulosic insulation.
The question was: What changed the condition of the wire?
Hurst believed Terri herself provided the clue.
In her interview with the SBI two days after the fire, Terri recalled plugging in portable heaters on each floor of the house to ward off the first chilly night of autumn. She had not turned off the heaters before falling asleep on the couch. But after s he called 911, she moved the downstairs heater away from the front door and found it was cold.
That make of heater, Hurst learned, drew 1,500 watts at full blast and took as long as an hour to cool. He figured the downstairs heater was plugged into an outlet that must have been on the same circuit as the wire in the attic over the closet ceiling. The additional load brought the wire in contact with the track of carbon.
In the report to the defense lawyers, Hurst noted that the wire over the closet ceiling, which was missing, could have been evidence in Terri's favor.
"The report is excellent!" Terri wrote to Hurst.
"At least we've finally broken out of the do-nothing phase," Hurst replied.
Hurst's hypothesis required an experiment. In February, the defense lawyers told Hurst they had arranged to get into 101 Wall St. so that he could examine the house, and they had set up a meeting later with the prosecutor in Terri's case.
Hurst agreed to come to Columbus County, and he asked Terri to make hotel reservations. He also decided to bring along an old friend, Ken Gibson, a retired Arlington, Texas, firefighter now a private investigator.
As Terri worked on the report, she also pestered the Department of Social Services about her daughter, who was sent to a foster home after Terri's mother had her stroke. In March, DSS finally placed Brittany with Terri's sister, Linda Smith, in Monroe.
Before his trip to Columbus County, Hurst asked Terri to do one more thing.
"How do you feel about taking a lie detector test?" he wrote.
Hurst considered the test about as reliable as reading the bumps on a person's head, and courts don't accept polygraph results as evidence in a trial. But a good outcome would be an ace to play with the prosecutor. Terri agreed to the test.
When she arrived at the examiner's Fayetteville office, he asked her whether she knew anything about polygraphs. Yes, she said; the Whiteville police chief once brought a machine to her class at Southeastern Community College and explained how it worked.
She was given the test four times, and Terri thought she had done pretty well. But as Terri got ready to leave, the examiner asked her whether the police chief had taught the class how to beat the test.
Later, Terri's lawyer wouldn't reveal the results but told her that the examiner said she was trying to control her breathing.
Hurst, unconcerned, told Terri to forget about it.
Hurst and Gibson were due to arrive the last weekend in March, and Terri planned a get-acquainted supper at her mother's house. Her family was a little anxious about Hurst.
"Everybody was leery at first when they learned we 'met' on the Internet," she wrote.
Just before he left Texas, Hurst told Terri that he would need about 100 feet of electrical wire. Terri promised it would be waiting for him.