Williamson County case highlights difficulties, high stakes of investigating arson

Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 9:05pm

Terry Jackson’s trial for his life ended abruptly this month. But the reason arson and murder charges against him were set aside may have more to do with events outside a criminal courtroom than within.

Five years ago this week, Terry Russell Jackson of Franklin and his live-in girlfriend Kandie Brown woke around 6 a.m. and ate breakfast at a local Best Western hotel before dropping off Brown’s son at school. They returned to their Bagsby Lane house where they were in the process of cleaning out a master bedroom that had been damaged by a fire 10 days before.

Later in the day on Oct. 20, 2006, Jackson told authorities, he and Brown fired up a generator outside shortly after arriving at the house, then ran an extension cord with a three-way splitter inside to power two electric heaters. They wanted to drive the morning chill out of the home while the couple ran out to tackle some errands.

Jackson said he and Brown returned about 45 minutes later to the home, which was nestled in a rural spot just east of the Williamson County Agricultural Exposition Park and about a 20-minute drive from downtown Franklin.

The two went to work cleaning the inside of the home. Jackson later told authorities that he’d left the house for less than 10 minutes, driving to his father’s house nearby to pick up two Cokes, before returning to smoke pouring from the house where the two had been working.

Jackson said he tried to reach Brown, first through the bedroom door that had been closed earlier to keep the cats out, but the knob on the door was too hot. He then grabbed a hatchet from the living room and busted through the door only to be met with flames. He stated that he also sprayed water into the bedroom with a garden hose and tried to gain entry to the bedroom through a bathroom window, with no  success.

The 41-year-old Brown died in the fire that day. But it wasn’t until two and a half years later that a grand jury charged Jackson with murder in connection to Brown’s death.

In spring 2009, Jackson, according to his attorney Lee Ofman, traveled to Mexico as he had done in the past, looking for work as an English teacher, when Mexican authorities arrested him as a fugitive. A Williamson County grand jury indicted Jackson that March on premeditated murder, felony murder and two counts of aggravated arson. He became one of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s 10 Most Wanted in early April shortly before his arrest.

Fast forward to October of this year.

As the case inched toward a trial that looked to pit the expert witnesses who investigated the 2006 fire for the prosecution against the defense’s expert witnesses, including a nationally known fire investigation expert, the state balked. The district attorney dismissed Jackson’s charges, for now at least. 

Bubbling under the surface of this case and many arson cases around the country are questions about the standards of conventional fire investigations.

For example, national fire expert John Lentini testified at a hearing in Texas last year that the evidence used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham of intentionally setting the fire that killed his three daughters in 1991 actually was consistent with that of an accidental fire. Texas Gov. Rick Perry refused to stay Willingham’s execution in February 2004. In the years since Willingham’s death, experts, including Lentini, have chiseled away at once accepted findings in arson investigations, highlighting the gulf between science and investigation.

It was with Lentini’s help, in part, that defense attorney Ofman sought to deconstruct the Jackson fire investigation. Central to that cause, strangely enough, would be a separate civil case in which Jackson sued Brown’s insurance company, the holder of Brown’s insurance policy on which he was a beneficiary.

This August, Ofman filed a Daubert motion, so named after the U.S. Supreme Court case Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., which established guidelines for determining the credibility of expert witnesses. In that motion, Ofman used the questioning of state witness David Edge III in the civil case to attack the methods of investigators involved in the multi-agency investigation of the Bagsby Lane fire.

“In my opinion, when somebody is charged with investigating an arson where somebody dies, you would probably not want to leave any stones unturned, and this case was filled with stones that were never turned,” Ofman said.

Some of those “stones,” Ofman said, included not ruling out potential ignition points, such as the heaters in the home being placed too close to other objects or perhaps an overloaded extension cord overheating. 

Ofman called the investigation “extremely shoddy,” saying in this case the investigators and their conclusions suffered when held up to scientific scrutiny. 

Ofman’s motion stated, “Their opinions as to the origin and cause of this fire are not formed on a factual basis supporting their opinions; their opinions are not grounded in the scientific method; their opinions and methodology have not been tested; the evidence they base their opinions on have not been subjected to peer review or publication; there is no known rate of error; and their method of conducting a fire investigation, in this case, is not generally accepted in the scientific community.”

In an email to The City Paper, Edge, one of those challenged in Ofman’s motion, directed inquiries to District Attorney General Kim Helper but stated that his role was to assist, along with others, in the investigation as a volunteer and also pointed out that it was the grand jury’s decision to bring charges against Jackson.

A hearing on the motion was set for Monday, Oct. 3. But three days before the hearing, the state notified Ofman that it planned to dismiss the charges against Jackson without prejudice. For now at least, the motion challenging how the fire investigation was conducted would not be heard in open court.

According to the district attorney, however, it was not expert witnesses that halted the case against Jackson but information from a lay witness, whom she declined to identify.

“Mr. Jackson’s attorney brought to me a witness who provided some information that I think impacted the state’s ability to present the case to a jury at this time,” said Helper, district attorney for the 21st Judicial District, which includes Williamson County. Helper added she could reopen the case against Jackson if new evidence came to light.

“It may be that [Ofman] and I disagree” as to the claims regarding the investigation on which Jackson’s charges were based, but the jury would have had to address those questions, Helper said.

Following the news that the state dismissed the charges, Ofman, speaking on behalf of Jackson, said his client was “extremely happy since he’s been living under the weight of a life sentence since 2009 when they indicted him in March. As of [Sept. 30], that’s the first time he’s been able to catch a breath without the heavy load on him.”

On the case itself, it “would probably have been decided on forensics,” Ofman said. “And I think that the fire community — fire investigators and people who do that type of work — has a long way to go before they become reliable.”

He added, “I’m only talking about one case, but if this is a typical fire case, we’re in trouble.”

Asked about Ofman’s claims regarding the investigation, Terry Hood, another of the state’s expert witnesses challenged in Ofman’s motion, said, “It’s not a perfect world by any means.” But he added the charges against Jackson made it past several thresholds along the way, including through the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office and then through the grand jury, which eventually decided to bring the indictment on arson and murder charges.

Hood, who along with Edge now works at Southern Fire Analysis investigating fires on behalf of insurance companies, said they were aware the defense would present its own experts to pick apart the investigation.

“The longer you [investigate fires] the more you realize there is always somebody out there that’s going to say you did this wrong, you did that wrong,” Hood said. “For Mr. Ofman to say there was incompetence — I think that’s a little over [stating it] on his part to say something like that, but that’s a defense attorney too.”  

2 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 10/17/11 at 6:50

How much influence do the Insurance companies have in these
type cases. Of course, they would want anyone charged criminally
so there would not be a payout to anyone, though not speaking of
this case specifically! This case should send any and all life insurance
in to trust for the lady's surviving son!

By: standingonthetop on 1/29/13 at 6:15

Lee Offman is a ****ing moron. The guy is lucky he didn't get 10 life sentences because he used Offman as his attorney!