The Southern Standard, by Duane Sherrill —
Thomas Lance is a free man for the first time in two and a half years after jurors found him not guilty of setting the fire which killed his friend Lee Neal on the morning of July 1, 2000.
Hugging his defense counsel and family members when the verdict was announced by Circuit Court Judge Bart Stanley just before noon Saturday, the jury’s announcement came following just over an hour of deliberations after they heard three days of testimony.
“I have great confidence in the jury system,” said Lance’s attorney Michael Galligan, who represented the defendant along with the entire staff of Galligan & Newman. “We believed in the boy’s cause and in his innocence.”
Much of his firm’s work was done for free after the Lance family ran out of money to continue his defense after hiring the firm. Galligan said his firm continued because he felt, “It was the right thing to do.”
“Anything short of giving all we had to defend him would not have been right,” Galligan said. “We weren’t about to leave him hanging over money.”
The acquittal came after the defense took a calculated gamble and put Lance on the stand at the end of the trial.
“The jury wants to look him in the eye and hear what happened in his own words,” Galligan said.
During his testimony, Lance said he and Neal had been friends since grade school and worked for the same company. On the night of the fire, Lance said he and the victim had been drinking together in the small trailer Neal sometimes stayed in behind his parents’ trailer. At some point around 2 a.m., Lance said he left the trailer to get some cigarettes out of a car. He said his friend was awake when he left.
“I was pretty drunk,” Lance recalled when he walked out to the car. “I must have passed out.”
Lance said he awoke an hour later from his slumber inside the car by the flickering of the fire, noting the trailer was already fully engulfed when he woke up. Lance said the door was too hot to allow him to get inside. It was later learned the door was also locked from the inside.
Lance said he went in and informed the victim’s parents the trailer was on fire. He said he also ran back to his friend’s room inside his parent’s trailer, hoping he had gone inside to sleep. Lance said he began crying when he realized his friend was still inside the burning trailer.
“I went back inside and just started crying,” Lance testified. “I couldn’t stand out there and just watch it burn knowing he was in there.”
Lance said questioning by law enforcement officers began a short time later, during which his clothes were seized and taken for analysis. Kerosene, which was found on his shirt, was what lawmen thought would link him to the crime since traces of kerosene were also found outside the trailer. Investigators believed Lance lit the fire from the outside, angry over being locked out of the trailer.
Lance maintained the kerosene on his clothes got there when he was helping carry a kerosene heater for storage earlier in the day. Prosecutors questioned why Lance did not mention the kerosene heater before the trial.
Helping Lance’s cause was the testimony of defense fire expert and chemist John Joseph Lintini who dispelled the state’s allegation the fire started from outside. Lintini said his tests showed the damage was caused by a fire which burned from the inside out instead of the outside in as suggested by prosecutors.
Lintini also said his tests showed the kerosene found outside the trailer was highly degraded, suggesting it had been there for more than a month prior to the fire. Lintini added kerosene can exist in the ground for over a year. His findings were challenged by District Attorney General Dale Potter who said his findings were only opinion and not supported by any existing publications.
“The fire started nowhere near where prosecutors say it did,” Lintini said, noting the state believed it was lit near a rear tire of the trailer. “I can’t say what caused the fire, but I can say it was accidental and began inside the trailer.”
With the loss, Potter said the state proceeded with what proof it had, admitting the lack of a motive likely hurt the case. Potter said the defense’s expert likely caused “confusion” in the minds of jurors. Also hurting the case was the inadmissibility of alleged prior actions on the part of Lance where he had exhibited violent tendencies while drinking.
“It’s important for officers to document things so when the case comes up years later we can use it,” Potter said. “There were some points we would have liked to present, which may or may not have made a difference, which we couldn’t use because there was no documentation.”
Lance was expected to bond out of jail Saturday afternoon. He still faces aggravated assault charges for an incident which allegedly happened at Warren County Jail during his stay. Those charges will be heard in the near future.