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Women who set ex-boyfriend on fire found not guilty

February 02, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Winona L. Mimms was found not guilty of malicious assault Wednesday by a Berkeley County Circuit Court jury that agreed with her contention that she set her former boyfriend on fire in self-defense.

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Mimms, 42, wept as Judge David Sanders read the jury's verdict.

Surrounded by her mother, daughters and friends, Mimms hugged defense attorney Paul Taylor.

"God has blessed me with a second chance," she said in an interview after the trial. "From the very beginning, I put my faith in God that he wouldn't let me come this far to fall."

Mimms, who did not testify in her own defense, still faces charges of malicious wounding, shoplifting and obstructing a police officer in an unrelated matter. But for now, she said she would rejoice at Wednesday's verdict.

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Mimms said she planned to attend a Bible study session Wednesday night.

"I have to be in a house of worship right now," she said.

After Mimms suffered a seizure during Tuesday's proceedings, causing the trial to be delayed by three hours, attorneys for both sides expected they would need a third day.

But the proceedings moved swiftly Wednesday morning, and the matter went to the jury at about 3:15 p.m. It took the jury of 11 women and one man took about 70 minutes to reach a verdict.

In his closing argument, Taylor implored the jury to consider Mimms' state of mind on Dec. 13, 1998, when she doused Melvin D. McDaniel with rubbing alcohol and then set him on fire with a cigarette lighter.

McDaniel refused to comply with Mimms' request that he move out of her home and blocked her from leaving the house, Taylor said.

"At that moment, at that very instance, you have to get inside her head," he said. "It's intent that you're determining."

Taylor pointed to McDaniel's own testimony in which he admitted he threatened to kill Mimms in October 1998 if she did not leave his belongings alone.

"He threatened to kill her. For what? Touching his stuff," Taylor said.

Assistant Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Hassan Rasheed used his final argument to urge the jury to overlook McDaniel's past actions.

"Does that justify torching him?" he asked. "The defense seems to be saying it's OK to burn him, to light him up like a Christmas tree. Ladies and gentleman, don't buy it."

Rasheed noted that Mimms had sought a protective order against McDaniel in October 1998 but did not show up for the hearing. She also invited him to move back in after he had checked into the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, he said.

Berkeley County Sheriff's Deputy Ted Snyder, who investigated Mimms' complaint, testified Wednesday that she seemed evasive when he tried to get more details about McDaniel's alleged abuse.

Rasheed also relied on testimony from law enforcement officers that the bottle of rubbing alcohol was on Mimms' dresser when they arrived at the house.

That was important, he argued, because it showed she had time to douse McDaniel, put the bottle back down and then reach for a lighter. Those are not the actions of someone who is terrified of imminent death, he said.

"The real motivation for this crime was not fear. It was anger," he said.

The prosecution put six witnesses on the stand Wednesday.

Lt. Kenny Lemaster, Cpl. David S. Wilson and Deputy Rebecca Collins, who investigated the burning for the sheriff's department, testified that Mimms' home at 658 Orchard Ave., east of Martinsburg, was not in disarray other than for charred clothing and burn spots on the carpet.

The jury also viewed a video and photographs that law enforcement officials took of the house that afternoon.

Lemaster testified that nothing about the appearance of the home or Mimms suggested a physical struggle had taken place that afternoon.

Collins testified that she did not see any bruises, cuts or other marks on Mimms when she questioned her.

"She kept saying, 'What did I do? What did I do? Oh God, did I kill him?'" Collins said.

On cross-examination, Taylor got the officers to acknowledge that domestic abuse can occur without broken windows, strewn furniture or other outward signs.

Collins also testified that Mimms cooperated fully with investigators and appeared concerned about McDaniel's condition.

Frank Turner Jr., a friend of Mimms' daughter, testified for the defense that he saw the aftermath of two fights between McDaniel and Mimms in early December 1998. On both occasions, glass was broken and furniture was thrown about, he said.

Turner testified that it appeared that someone had "tossed her around."

"I could tell that her back was really injured," he said.

Jo Anne Parker, a friend of Mimms who visited her often, testified that she once saw welts on Mimms' neck.

Taylor challenged McDaniel's credibility in his closing argument. He noted conflicting testimony he had given on Tuesday about when he had met Mimms and whether he had a home or a job at the time.

Taylor depicted McDaniel as an out-of-work, homeless drug addict who took advantage of Mimms at a time when she was vulnerable after a recent divorce.

"He conned Winona Mimms, and then he tried to con you," he told the jury.

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