Saturday, 2:15 PM
Woman is acquitted of arson after spending 10 years in prison
(AP File Photo)
Kathleen Hilton at a 1999 court appearance.
By David Abel, Globe Staff
After 10 years in state prison without a trial, Kathleen Hilton finally got one over the last five weeks.
And after deliberating for about 14 hours over the past three days, a Lawrence Superior Court jury today set the 62-year-old grandmother free.
The jury this afternoon found Hilton not guilty of seven charges of murder and arson in a 1999 fire in Lynn that killed five people, including three children, said Steve O’Connell, a spokesman for the Essex district attorney's office.
Judges, legal scholars, and lawyers who practice criminal law have said they could not recall a similar case in the state of someone found competent to stand trial who had been imprisoned for so long without one. Under Superior Court rules, murder cases in Massachusetts should not take longer than a year between arraignment and trial.
O’Connell declined to comment on the verdict.
“As a matter of policy we don't comment on not guilty verdicts,” he said in an e-mail.
Prosecutors argued that Hilton set the fire at a three-decker where her son's former girlfriend lived because she was angry the woman wouldn't let her son see his two children. Her grandchildren survived, but the fire killed five others who lived there. Heriberto Feliciano, his wife, Sonia Hernandez, their two daughters, Sonia and Maria, and a niece, Glorimar Santiago, were trapped and died on the third floor.
Hilton’s case had been held up as a result of a long legal feud between prosecutors and her lawyer that has sparked two rulings from the Supreme Judicial Court and multiple decisions in Superior Court.
The dispute arose from statements Hilton made after she was arrested in February 1999 on charges of five counts of second-degree murder, arson, and causing injury to a firefighter. Hilton was arrested three days after the fire and allegedly told police that she had struck a match and dropped it on the wooden porch, which she said she had soaked with a flammable scented oil. After watching the house erupt in flames, she allegedly told police, she walked home.
A few days later, after her arraignment, Hilton allegedly told a court officer escorting her to a holding cell that "I hope he forgives me." When asked what she was referring to, Hilton responded: "I hope my son forgives me. I could have killed my grandchildren."
Michael F. Natola, Hilton's lawyer, could not be reached this afternoon.
But he argued that Hilton, who has been diagnosed with mental retardation and various psychoses, made the statements involuntarily. She had been initially declared incompetent to stand trial, but after a few weeks of evaluations at Taunton State Hospital, psychiatrists found her competent, meaning she could understand the charges against her and assist in her defense.
Natola attributed her alleged statements to an effort to protect her son, Charles Loayza, who was in the middle of a custody fight with his girlfriend, Krystina Sutherland, and had threatened to burn down her house. He said Hilton fabricated her story because she believed her son, then 22 years old and a prime suspect, would go to prison. Police eliminated her son as a suspect after confirming his alibi.
Shortly after the arraignment, Natola filed motions to suppress the statements, which started the decade-long battle with prosecutors.
Reached at her home in Lynn, Rose Zarba, Sutherland’s grandmother, said she was shocked by the verdict.
“I was very surprised,” she said in a telephone interview. “I really thought it would be a guilty verdict. I really thought she did it.”