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Jury deliberates in arson case

December 18, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

A jury is scheduled to begin deliberations this morning in the case of a Hampton, Va., man charged with arson in a 2002 fire at a Hagerstown apartment building.

John A. Mitchell, 37, is charged with four counts of first-degree arson in the early morning fire at 38-40 Randolph Ave. on May 19, 2002. Mitchell had rented an apartment there.

Attorneys for both the state and defense completed their closing arguments Wednesday in Washington County Circuit Court before Judge John H. McDowell. The trial began Monday.

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In her closing arguments, Assistant Washington County State's Attorney Theresa Adams said the "horrific and tremendous" explosion that took place that night terrified neighbors and spewed glass into the street.

Adams referenced testimony from Fire Marshal Tom Brown, who testified the fire was intentionally set and that gasoline was used.

She said Mitchell was linked to the fire by three key pieces of evidence:

  • A 911 phone call from a neighbor who identified a license tag on a car seen driving away at the time of the explosion. The car had been rented by Mitchell.

  • A scientist's conclusion that a glass shard found on the car Mitchell rented matched a glass shard found outside the Randolph Avenue home after the explosion.

  • A $56 payment Mitchell made days before the fire, which Adams said was the first payment toward a $50,000 renters insurance policy.


In his closing arguments, Mitchell's attorney, Wiley S. Rutledge, questioned the piece of glass found on the rental car. He said it was discovered two days after the explosion, and left open the possibility it had been placed there.

Rutledge said Mitchell had only claimed approximately $5,000 worth of items in his insurance claim, much less than what the $50,000 policy was worth.

"It just doesn't make sense," Rutledge said.

Adams showed the jury a photo of the rental car.

"What is on the back of this car? '3645,'" Adams said, pointing to the photo of a red Oldsmobile Alero and its license plate. Then she played the 911 recording from May 19, 2002.

A voice crackled on the tape, "There's been an explosion ..."

The male voice tells the 911 operator he thinks he saw a license plate number. The operator asks the man to repeat the number.

" ... 3645 or something."

Adams stopped the tape and told the jury, "Find him guilty."

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