CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A man charged with the 1989 arson deaths of four members of a New Hampshire family remains in custody while waiting to learn whether the state Supreme Court will uphold lower court rulings that substantially weaken the state’s case against him.
David McLeod in 2010 became the most prominent suspect arrested by the state’s recently-formed Cold Case Unit. He was living in California when he was charged with setting the fire that killed two children and two adults in Keene two decades earlier.
McLeod is being held without bond at the Cheshire County House of Corrections, and the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Jan. 10 on the lower court rulings.
Superior Court Judge Marguerite Wageling last year barred testimony by the state’s arson experts, saying their conclusions were based largely on statements of a deceased witness McLeod can’t cross-examine.
McLeod was indicted by a Cheshire County grand jury in July 2010 on four counts of second-degree murder. Carl and Lori Hina, their 4-month-old daughter, Lillian, and Carl Hina’s 12-year-old daughter, Sara Hina, were killed in the fire. Fifteen residents of the apartment building survived.
Authorities say McLeod threatened to torch the building where his ex-girlfriend lived and afterward bragged about having set the Jan. 14, 1989, fire. Investigators say the fire started in the apartment of Sandra Walker, who lived one floor below the Hina family.
Retired state fire investigator Thomas Norton testified at a pretrial hearing last year that he initially thought a dropped cigarette may have started the blaze, but discounted that after talking to Walker. Walker first told police she thought she must have fallen asleep on the couch while smoking.
‘‘She was, by her own admission, intoxicated that night,’’ Norton testified.
But a few days after the fire, she told police she never slept on the couch and awakened to a fire burning at the foot of her mattress and ran to the bathroom for water to put it out. She told Norton she could see clearly, the room was not filled with smoke and she was not choking or coughing. When she returned to the room with water to douse the fire, flames engulfed the apartment and she fled, she told Norton. Walker has since died.
Wageling ruled that the state cannot use conclusions from the arson experts that the fire was deliberately set because their findings are based on statements by Walker, who can’t be cross-examined. She labeled as ‘‘disingenuous’’ prosecutors’ assertions that Walker’s statements could be used as evidence, not for their truth, but to illustrate the basis for the experts’ determinations.
Prosecutors are also challenging the lower court’s suppression of a recorded phone conversation with McLeod, saying it was a ‘‘technical violation’’ that the proper paperwork for the recording was filed three days late. Defense lawyers argue the suppression is justified because the paperwork specifies no ‘‘reasonable suspicion’’ to justify the recording.