Jury Acquits Ashley County, Ark., Teen of Arson

November 10, 2008

An Ashley County, Ark., jury has acquitted a teenager accused of setting fire to nearly 4,000 acres in January 2006.

The jury acquitted 19-year-old Joel David “Luke” Holland on charges of felony arson, unlawful burning and causing a catastrophe. Holland’s attorney, Robert Bridewell, says jurors concluded that Holland’s confession was improperly influenced by authorities investigating the forest fire, which destroyed $10.5 million worth of timber and other property.

Holland was 16 at the time of the Jan. 8, 2006, fire but 17 at the time of his arrest 11 months later. The investigation focused on Holland after a jail inmate told police the teen had bragged about setting the fire while drinking with him and others.

“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, 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, 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.

Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, www.arkansasonline.com

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