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Wisconsin woman says she was railroaded into arson conviction

In February 2013, a house in the small town of Quincy, Wisconsin, burned nearly to the ground. Its owner was Brenda Jones, a 51-year-old woman with cancer. She was legally disabled and disability insurance was her only source of income. She wasn't home at the time of the fire, which was electrical in origin.

Although both an insurance adjuster and arson investigators ruled that the fire was accidental, the Adams County Sheriff's Office pressed forward with an arson case against Jones. 

She was convicted of arson and sentenced to nine months in jail and seven years of probation. In 2018, Jones appealed and was granted a new trial. All of the charges against her were dismissed "in the face of overwhelming evidence of her innocence."

How did an innocent woman end up being convicted of arson in a case where there was so little evidence of guilt? Jones believes she was railroaded by an Adams County Sheriff's investigator.

As we mentioned, a claims adjuster concluded that the electrical fire was "not suspect." Arson investigators "did not find any accelerants, burn degree or burn patterns" that would indicate arson.

The main evidence against Jones was an alleged confession. But that confession was extremely suspect.

Shady acquaintance claims Jones confessed

According to Jones, an acquaintance named Alan O. approached her after the fire. He allegedly grabbed her by the neck and tried to extort a portion of her insurance proceeds. Jones reported the extortion attempt to police and warned them that Alan might call and lie about the fire.

The Adams County Sheriff's investigator responded to her report. He asked Jones to make a recorded call to Alan, who threatened Jones again. This potentially exculpatory evidence was allegedly lost and was never turned over to either the prosecutor or Jones's defense counsel as is required by law.

Meanwhile, Alan contacted the insurance adjuster claiming to have a recording of Jones confessing to arson. However, he contacted the adjuster eight days before he later claimed he recorded that confession. The recording contains only an inaudible whisper.

Nevertheless, the Adams County Sheriff's investigator vouched for this confession at trial. He also testified, allegedly falsely, that Jones had told him Alan never attacked her.

"The only evidence offered to convict Ms. Jones was the manipulated evidence supplied by [the investigator] that the fire was the result of arson and not an accident; and the hiding of exculpatory evidence by Investigator York," reads a lawsuit Jones has filed against the investigator and the Adams County Sheriff's office.

Her lawsuit claims that Jones was denied due process and other constitutional rights. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, which are meant to punish wrongdoing.

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