December 19, 2013

Jury deadlock means mistrial in fatal ’89 N.H. fire

David McLeod allegedly bragged about setting the fire that killed a family of four, but he wasn’t arrested for two decades and his attorney says there was no new evidence.

The Associated Press

KEENE, N.H. – The murder trial of a man accused of setting a 1989 fire that killed a family of four in New Hampshire ended in a mistrial Thursday after jurors failed to reach a verdict.

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Jurors deadlocked and a mistrial was declared in the murder trial of David McLeod, charged with murder in a 1989 arson at a Keene, N.H., apartment that killed four people.

The Associated Press

Prosecutors said David McLeod planned, then bragged about setting the fire nearly 25 years ago and should finally be held accountable. But a lawyer for McLeod, 57, said his cruel statements don’t prove his guilt and no new evidence had emerged to link him to the fire.

Cheshire Superior Court Judge John Kissinger called the mistrial after jurors spent nearly two days deliberating but could not come to a unanimous decision.

Kissinger, however, refused to grant McLeod bail but said a retrial would have to be scheduled soon. McLeod has been in jail for 3 ½ years as he awaited trial.

Assistant Attorney General Janice Rundles said she was disappointed that the case ended in a mistrial. She said as with all cold cases, “there’s always a problem with witnesses and memories.”

In arguing for bail, defense attorney Caroline Smith said the prosecution had presented its best case, and if there was not enough evidence to convince a jury, there was not clear and convincing evidence to keep McLeod jailed.

McLeod was charged with four counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Carl and Lori Hina, their 4-month-old daughter, Lillian, and Carl Hina’s 12-year-old daughter, Sara.

McLeod was an early suspect but wasn’t arrested for more than two decades, in part because so many of the witnesses were drunk the night of the blaze or were initially uncooperative with authorities.

New Hampshire’s cold case unit picked up McLeod in 2010 in West Sacramento, Calif., where he had moved and raised a family.

“It’s time for him now to finally be held responsible for cutting short the lives of the Hina family,” Rundles said in closing arguments.

Rundles said McLeod started talking about burning down the apartment house in Keene where his ex-girlfriend lived in the summer of 1988, threatened to torch it three weeks before the fire and told three people that night he was going to do it. While horrified residents gathered outside to watch their homes burn, McLeod was jubilant until he realized the Hinas had died, she said.

Rundles displayed a sampling of his comments on a large screen in the courtroom, including, “Didn’t I do a good job?”

Smith countered in her closing argument that the case was thoroughly investigated in 1989 and that there has been no new DNA, fingerprint evidence or new witnesses to change the initial finding.

Smith said McLeod had neither motive nor opportunity to start the fire. While prosecutors have said McLeod set the fire to get back at his former girlfriend, Wanda Ford, she was with McLeod at a party in another apartment that night and said McLeod was sitting on a sofa with her for 45 minutes before the fire.

“There is no evidence that David started the fire and there’s a lot of evidence that he didn’t, and couldn’t, start the fire,” she said.

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