A fire investigator failed to notice a faulty wire — and a young woman paid dearly for it.

Out of the Fire 

A fire investigator failed to notice a faulty wire — and a young woman paid dearly for it.

Page 2 of 4

The jury found Hall guilty of second-degree arson and recommended a sentence of three years in prison.

Hall says that on the day of sentencing, Cover advised her that the court might look more favorably upon her if she "took responsibility" for the fire.

"He said that I needed to go with their theory that I was doing it for attention," Hall tells the Pitch. "And I said, 'I don't want to say that, because it's going to make me look even worse.'" Instead, feeling pressure from her attorney to look conciliatory, she says she made up a story about setting the fire accidentally by dropping a cigarette. "I've never smoked," she says. A probation officer reported Hall's confession to the judge.

Cover billed the Halls $10,000. The family hired another attorney, Matt O'Connor, for Hall's appeals.

O'Connor did what Cover did not: He hired an expert, a forensics specialist named Carl Martin.

Martin says that when he was granted access to items removed from the fire scene and examined the power cord on a clock that had been close to where the fire started, he said to himself, "Is this a joke?" A bead of copper gleamed from a small, burned break in the cord, visible to the naked eye. The short circuit hadn't been noted in the report written by Schraml, the Harrisonville fire investigator whose testimony was key in convicting Hall.

"I don't know what the heck went on in that case, but I've never seen anything like it before," Martin says. "There wasn't any doubt that there had been an electrical short circuit. Everything was very consistent with it being a long-term short circuit in a very old power cord on an old clock very near the fire's origin. It was black-and-white after we tested it. There was no other way.... Unfortunately, the investigators and police and the prosecutors were unable to see that. I don't know if they had bad vision. I don't know why they chose not to consider the most significant piece of evidence they had."

The large amount of paper around the site of the fire can be explained, O'Connor says, by the fact that a black file tray was knocked over during the fire. As the tray melted, the plastic cascaded down the side of the computer in a gooey mess. The paper that was in the tray could have fallen near the site of the fire in a big, charred clump.

O'Connor filed numerous appeals on Hall's behalf. The first, a motion for a hearing based on newly discovered evidence, was denied. The Missouri Court of Appeals denied a second appeal on July 22, 2003. O'Connor filed a motion in November 2003, claiming that Hall was denied effective assistance of counsel, in part because Cover had failed to investigate possible alternative causes for the fire.

Meanwhile, Hall spent from July 25, 2003, to July 23, 2004, at a women's maximum-security prison in Vandalia, where she shared a cell with four other inmates.

She recalls being scared her first day. Another inmate told her, "Just act like you've been here before, and nobody will mess with you."

Despite her pretending, the stress got to her. An epileptic, she usually suffered one seizure every eight to ten months, but while in prison, she had two or three a week. Because O'Connor distrusted Vandalia's medical care for inmates (a well-publicized medication mix-up last summer caused a dozen inmates to be hospitalized), he says he faxed information regarding Hall's epilepsy medication to the prison every day.

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