In January 2001, there was a fire in the respiratory therapy room at the Cass County Medical Center in Harrisonville, Missouri, which caused an estimated $23,000 in damage. Jennifer Hall, the only respiratory therapist on duty the day of the fire, heard the fire alarm go off while she was getting something from her car. She rushed back into the building and, along with a co-worker, turned off the oxygen valve in the room to prevent an explosion. Investigators noticed a burn on Hall’s hand and an unusual amount of charred paper near the fire. When they concluded three weeks later that the fire was intentionally set, Hall was arrested. Hall’s parents hired a private attorney to defend her, but the attorney failed to examine the evidence and routinely mixed up facts, dates and names at trial. The prosecution argued that Hall had set the fire in order to gain attention for her heroic attempt to extinguish it, because she was unhappy about a sexual harassment claim she had filed against a co-worker, who had died two weeks before the fire. In September 2001, a jury found Hall guilty of arson. Hall’s attorney advised her that she might receive a more favorable sentence if she took responsibility for the fire, so Hall made up a story that she had dropped a lit cigarette and the fire started accidentally. Hall was sentenced to 3 years in prison.
Following Hall’s conviction, her parents hired a new attorney who had an expert examine the evidence. The expert quickly found definitive evidence, overlooked by police investigators that the fire had started because of an electrical short in an old cord. Nonetheless, the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed Hall’s conviction, and she began to serve her sentence in June 2003. Hall’s attorney filed a motion to set aside the verdict, arguing that she had received ineffective assistance of counsel because her original attorney had failed to investigate alternative causes for the fire. In June 2004, the judge who presided over Hall’s trial ruled that her first attorney had been ineffective and granted the motion. Hall, who had spent a year in prison, was paroled a month later. Five months later, the prosecution decided to retry Hall despite the fact that, if found guilty again, Hall could not serve any more time. In February 2005, a jury acquitted Hall of the charges.
- Stephanie Denzel