Teen acquitted in 4,000-acre blaze

Teen acquitted in 4,000-acre blaze

8 November 2008

published by www.nwanews.com


USA —  An Ashley County jury acquitted a teenager accused of burning almost 4, 000 acres in January 2006 about 10 miles southeast of Hamburg, attorneys said Friday.

The jury acquitted Joel David “Luke” Holland, 19, on charges of felony arson, unlawful burning and causing a catastrophe Thursday evening after a twoday trial in Hamburg.

Jurors concluded the defendant’s confession was improperly influenced by authorities investigating the forest fire, which destroyed $ 10. 5 million worth of timber and other property, said Lake Village lawyer Robert Bridewell, Holland’s attorney.

Holland was 16 at the time of the Jan. 8, 2006, fire but 17 at the time of his arrest 11 months later.

“He just made up the story that he did it,” Bridewell said. “Authorities told him if he confessed they’d let him go and that he’d probably get probation, so he made up the story to get out of jail that night.” Holland was arrested in December 2006 after an inmate in the Ashley County jail told authorities Holland bragged about setting the fire, which burned for 24 hours before being contained by about 170 firefighters.

But in the confession tape, Holland said he set the fire in the summer by lighting a plastic bag with ice in it, Bridewell said.

The fire started in the winter, and it’s unlikely that lighting a plastic bag with ice would cause a forest fire, Bridewell said.

Holland, who quit school after the fifth grade and had an IQ between 71 and 80, worked as a commercial fisherman in a family business. There was no physical evidence linking him to the forest fire that destroyed a residence, a hunting club, farm equipment and 3, 300 acres of timber owned by Plum Creek Timber Co. Inc., a Seattle-based company, Bridewell said.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Cason said he spoke to the jury foreman, John David Ford, who told him jurors acquitted Holland in part because they felt authorities may have improperly influenced the confession.

“Because of his youth, jurors felt he should have been given more consideration as far as interrogation techniques,” Cason said. “Jurors felt sorry for him. They felt he had a hard life.” A co-worker and roommate hanged himself in Holland’s front yard, and his father died between the time of the fire and his arrest, Cason said.

The Arkansas Court of Appeals ruled in April that Holland could be tried as an adult. If convicted, he could have received 10 to 40 years or life for the arson and causing a catastrophe charges and three to 10 years for unlawful burning.


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