Lita Mae Chollette Davis wept and hugged her attorney after a Grand Court jury found her not guilty of arson on Tuesday in Grand Cayman. A jury of six women and one man returned a unanimous verdict.
Davis was charged after an incident in West Bay in the early morning hours of 15 October, 2011, when propane gas exploded and fire destroyed the apartment in which she had been living with her boyfriend, Edwin Henry.
He was burned over 45 per cent of his body and spent two and a half weeks in the hospital.
Davis, 50, did not testify during her trial, instead opting to rely on an interview conducted with police after the incident.
The interview was presented as part of the case for the prosecution, led by Crown Counsel Laura Manson.
Davis admitted drinking beer and rum at the apartment that evening, before leaving to go out to a bar where she drank more. Afterward, there was a quarrel, which eventually resulted in Mr. Henry being inside the house and Davis outside.
In her interview, Davis said she had been locked out, but Mr. Henry denied locking the door until he heard other voices.
By Davis’ account, when she couldn’t open the door, she broke a window. Then, “I hauled the cylinder of gas … I don’t know where I get the strength. I just haul it and it come off [the connection]. I didn’t know it would explode … I just take it and pitch it in there.”
Asked why, she said she wanted Mr. Henry to “come out and quarrel with me or tell me something … I never expect it was going to explode. You have to light something,” she said in explaining why she never thought it would explode.
“That not supposed to catch fire so, if no fire did light,” she said later. The cylinder – an exhibit during trial – was what is commonly referred to as a 20-pound tank. Expert witness Dennis Kerr, an experienced fire investigator, said the tank would have weighed 18 pounds empty and about 47 pounds when full.
He said it was not possible to identify the specific source of the spark; however, he added that possible sources included electrical appliances and wall switches.
The jury heard that Mr. Henry had installed the tank to connect with the cook stove the previous Monday.
Davis said she threw the tank inside the apartment, “but the first time I throw it, it didn’t go in. It come back out. So afterward I throw it through the window but I didn’t know that would explode”.
Mr. Henry’s evidence was that, after the window was broken, he saw Davis spray the gas into the apartment. He said the cylinder did not come in.
Firefighters arriving at the scene found the cylinder standing upright outside the structure.
During closing arguments, defence attorney Fiona Robertson pointed out that Mr. Henry said he smelled and saw the propane, but he did not leave the apartment. She referred to a neighbour’s evidence that he heard the hiss of the propane and smelled it; and although he was in an adjoining apartment, he did not leave the premises.
She suggested that if they did not appreciate the danger, it should not be assumed that Davis did, either.
Mr. Henry’s evidence was that he went into the bathroom and called 911. He said he did not leave the apartment because he thought there were two other people outside whose help Davis had enlisted.
He also denied hitting Davis. Asked about her bloody nose and black eye, he said she was sitting on the bed earlier in the evening when he tried to get past her to the bathroom. She had refused to move, so he had moved her legs and she fell on the floor. He thought she hit her nose that way. He said he did not know about the black eye.
In his summing up, Chief Justice Anthony Smellie told jurors that, although it was open to them as to what aspect of the evidence they accepted or rejected, they might consider it would be unsafe to rely on Mr. Henry’s evidence when he described other people acting with the defendant.
The neighbour said he saw only the defendant outside and heard only her and Mr. Henry. The judge also noted that the evidence Mr. Henry gave during the trial was inconsistent with the statement he gave to police when he was in the hospital and another statement he gave before the trial.
The judge pointed out that, whether Davis sprayed the gas or threw the cylinder, by either account she did cause propane to enter the apartment. “The real question is, what was her state of mind when she did so?” he said.
Although Davis did not give evidence, that was her right, the judge said. However, when questioned she raised a number of matters that did incriminate her. She admitted that she caused the gas to enter the apartment, but she gave an explanation – that she didn’t realise propane gas could explode only by her throwing it.
“If you accept her version, that’s entirely a matter for you,” the judge told jurors. He said they might feel less significance should be given to what Davis said about her state of mind because she did not say so on oath and what she said was not tested in cross-examination.