On August 16, 1996, Sheila Bryan and her 82-year-old mother, Freda, left their home in Omega, Georgia to take a leisurely sight-seeing drive through the countryside. Tragedy struck when Bryan said she became distracted, lost control and drove the 1987 Mercury Cougar off the road in a ditch at the bottom of an 18-foot embankment.
Bryan later said she couldn’t turn the car off and her mother was not responsive. She was able to get out, but couldn’t get her out because the door was locked.
She climbed the embankment to seek help and by chance a cousin of hers, Danny Weeks, and his wife were driving down the road. By the time she stopped them, smoke was billowing from the car. Weeks ran to get a bucket of water, but it was too late. Neither of them could approach the car because the blaze was out of control. Her mother was dead, although the medical examiner said it was unclear whether she was dead before being burned.
Bryan was indicted on December 18, 1997 on charges of arson and murder. Colquitt County prosecutors said that Bryan, weary of caring for her elderly mother, had deliberately set the car afire to collect on the auto’s insurance policy.
State arson investigators testified that the fire began on the floorboard in front of the driver’s seat and spread to the passenger side and that the blaze was intentionally set by someone using a flammable liquid. The investigators pointed to what they said were “pour patterns” left by the burning of a flammable liquid.
A defense expert testified that there were no burn patterns left by ignitable liquids and that the fire was caused by an electrical failure.
On September 4, 1997, Bryan, 44, was convicted by a jury and she was sentenced to life in prison for the murder and 20 years for the arson.
On June 14, 1999, the Supreme Court of Georgia overturned the verdict, ruling that evidence about the insurance policy on the car was improperly admitted because there was no evidence of a connection to the crime.
In January, 2000, Bryan went on trial again. By this time, her defense had retained Gerald Hurst, an arson expert from Austin, Texas, who testified that the fire appeared to have been started by a faulty ignition switch and that what prosecution experts said were pour patterns were actually the result of the burning of plastic that melted during the intense blaze. Hurst said the prosecution experts relied on outdated and disproven arson theories.
On January 28, 2000, a jury deliberated for three hours and then acquitted Bryan.
– Maurice Possley