Verdicts quashed in fatal fire case

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The Independent Online
TWO WOMEN convicted of starting a house fire in which a mother and her two young daughters burnt to death had their convictions overturned yesterday.

The Court of Appeal decided there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction of Annette Hewins, who had been found guilty in 1997 of arson with intent to endanger life. The court freed her immediately. A second woman, Donna Clarke, had a similar conviction overturned, but the court decided that she should face a retrial. She was refused bail.

The case centres on the deaths in 1995 of Diane Jones and her two daughters, Shauna, two, and Sarah-Jane, who was 13 months old. The family had been asleep at their home on the rundown, graffiti- covered Gurnos estate, near Merthyr Tydfil in Mid Glamorgan, when fire ripped through the house.

As the fire took hold, Ms Jones was seen at an upstairs bedroom window calling for help. It was widely believed at the time that she chose to die with her two daughters rather than leave them.

A forensic science examination of the house in the days after the fire in October 1995 revealed that the blaze had been started deliberately by someone pouring petrol under the front door and setting fire to it.

South Wales Police had always privately admitted that the investigation had been a difficult one, and that they had been hampered by a lack of scientific evidence. The court ruled yesterday that there was insufficient evidence to uphold the conviction against Ms Hewins, 32, who had been accused of supplying the petrol.

Lord Justice Kennedy told the court: "In the case of Hewins, one of her successful grounds of appeal is that in reality there was not sufficient evidence to prove the case against her, so in her case it would not, in our judgment, be right to order a retrial." An hour after the ruling, Ms Hewins, who had been acquitted of murder but jailed at Cardiff Crown Court for 13 years on the lesser charge of arson, walked from the court, her face stained with tears. "I want to go home to my babies," she said.

Later her solicitor, Adrian Clarke, said there would now follow a claim for compensation. "This has had a terrible effect on her family and on her health. Her children have been growing up and her youngest doesn't really know her," he said.

"She should never have been prosecuted. Having been prosecuted, her trial should never have gone ahead. The trial, having gone ahead, should have been thrown out half-way through.

"There was never any evidence upon which anyone could conclude that Annette had committed a crime."

He said that Ms Hewins was suicidal and had been receiving psychiatric help. The root cause of her illness, he said, had been her wrongful conviction.

Ms Hewins' niece, Ms Clarke, 29, was convicted of arson by the same jury at Cardiff Crown Court, having also been cleared of murder, and sentenced to 20 years. Lord Justice Kennedy, sitting with Mr Justice Brian Smedley and Mr Justice Poole, ordered that she be retried.

A third defendant, Denise Sullivan, was also cleared of murder at the original trial but sentenced to four years' imprisonment for attempting to pervert the course of justice.

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