On November 13, 2006, firefighters were summoned by neighbors to fight a blaze in the home of 31-year-old Frederick Mardlin in Capac, Michigan. Fire investigators believed the blaze was intentionally set. Mardlin, who left his home to visit a brother shortly before the fire broke out, was charged with two counts of arson.
Mardlin went on trial before a jury in St. Clair County Circuit Court. Michigan State police Sgt. Michael Waite testified that he believed the fire was intentionally set in a love seat, as did David Stayer, a fire investigator hired by the firm that insured the home. No evidence of accelerants was found.
Prosecutors also presented evidence that Mardlin was behind in his mortgage payments and bills and that he had been involved in other fires that involved insurance claims. In 1994, his truck burned while he was fishing. In 2001, his van’s engine caught fire and burned his uninsured mobile home. In 2003, a van he drove for a carpet business caught fire, and in 2006, a blanket left on a kerosene heater in his home had ignited.
A defense fire expert, Robert Trenkle, testified that his investigation showed the fire started behind a couch, not on top of the loveseat. He said that he did not have sufficient time or money to conduct tests, but suspected the fire could have been caused by an outlet behind the couch. He said that further testing on the outlet should have been conducted.
Prior to trial, Mardlin’s attorney had requested that an electrical expert be appointed to examine the outlet and power cords in the room where the fire began, but the motion was denied.
The prosecution’s experts had not examined the outlet or cords because they believed the fire was set on top of the love seat.
On June 14, 2007, Mardlin was convicted of arson of a dwelling house and burning insured property. He was sentenced to three to 20 years in prison.
Mardlin’s appellate attorney found an electrical expert who examined the outlet and cords free of charge. The expert concluded that the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction. The expert videotaped confirmatory testing that he said showed that a short in a cord leading from a power-strip created a significant heat source that, in turn, caused the outlet to overheat and ignite.
In 2008, the Michigan Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial judge to hear a motion for a new trial based on the defense expert’s findings. The motion was denied.
In May 2009, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The appeals court ruled that the evidence of the other fires had been improperly admitted into evidence. The court did not address Mardlin’s claim that an electrical expert should have been appointed to examine the outlet prior to trial.
In 2010, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the appeals court ruling on the evidence of other fires and reinstated the conviction. However, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court to examine the claim relating to the electrical expert. The appeals court upheld the denial of a new trial and the case was then appealed on that issue to the Michigan Supreme Court.
In December 2011, Mardlin was released from prison on parole.
In January 2012, the Michigan Supreme Court set aside the conviction and ordered a new trial. The Supreme Court ruled that Mardlin’s attorney had provided an inadequate defense for failing to renew the motion to retain the electrical expert after Mardlin was convicted. The Court held that the evidence ultimately developed by the expert retained by Mardlin’s appellate lawyer could have resulted in an acquittal.
On February 14, prosecutors dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley