Bryan Faces A Second Murder Trial

This Time She Uses A Different Defense

Even after the Georgia Supreme Court threw out the murder conviction, Sheila Bryan was still not in the clear.

The state of Georgia decided to try Bryan again for murdering her mother.

The court did not, however, throw out the state's key evidence: the testimony of its fire experts, who told the jury that the fire was started with a highly flammable liquid. Though two labs found no trace of it in all the materials taken from Bryan's car, the experts said a liquid was used. Their evidence: the burn pattern in the car, which pointed to arson, they said.

As the new trial approached, Bryan savored her newfound freedom. She spent time with her daughters and husband and got a part-time job delivering meals to the elderly

Bryan's second trial began in January. Defense witnesses told the jury that Bryan and her mother had a close, loving relationship. The prosecution argued that Bryan could not take the stress of caring for Weeks.

This time the defense focused on another potential explanation for the fire, not mentioned in the first trial. The ignition switches in many Fords and Mercurys made from 1984 to 1993 have a controversial history. In some cases, the switches have caused fires. In 1996, Ford recalled some of those vehicles. While Ford says the switch on Bryan's car was different than those recalled, critics say it poses the same potential hazard.

The defense's first fire expert, Chris Bloom, said in this case that the ignition switch could have sparked the blaze.

The state argued, however, the fire was started on purpose.

Switch Savvy
Check out a site devoted to finding out about potential problems with Ford ignition switches.
The defense grilled one of the state's witnesses, private fire investigator Ralph Newell, about his ties to Ford. In 1995, he was a consultant to Ford, heading a task force it set up to investigate its ignition switches. That investigation played a role in Ford's recall decision. In 1999, his consulting company grossed about $150,000 from Ford.

Both Newell and another prosecution witness, fire expert Ronnie Dobbins, told the jury that the ignition switch had long ago been ruled out as a possible cause. Both men testified that only a flammable fluid could cause the intense, irregular burn pattern they saw. But on cross-examination, Dbbins was forced to admit that he didn't know what an ignition switch looked like.

Auto Matters
Check out Ford's Web site.
Then Texas fire expert Jerry Hurst told the jury that the fire easily could have started without an accelerant. He argued that the ignition switch probably started the fire, and that melting plastic from the car could easily have fueled the blaze.

Hurst described his experiments with burning plastic stripped from a 1987 Mercury Cougar like Bryan's. Not only is the heated plastic enough to fuel an intense fire, he said, it produces irregular burn patterns, like those seen in Bryan's crash.

"No accelerant required," Hurst said on the stand.

Hurst also challenged the state's argument that the burn pattern proved that Bryan's door was open when the fire began. The prosecution maintained that the pattern showed that Bryan had started the fire and then closed the door.

Expert witness Hurst told the jury that the pattern could have resulted even with the door closed. Because that door seal was not airtight, melted plastic flowed under the door, he said.

"Those two patterns there were not caused by an accelerant," he told the jury. "Those were caused by flowing plastic. And there is no doubt in my mind about that."

After a four-day trial, the case went to the jury. After three hours of deliberation, on Jan. 28, it found Bryan not guilty on all counts. Bryan and her family were ecstatic. "None of us are going to be the same," says her husband Karlas Bryan.

With the trial over, Sheila Bryan can begin to come to grips with the loss of her mother, she says. She takes comfort in the belief that Weeks died before the fire started.

What helps even more is remembering how her mother lived, Sheila Bryan says. "I always tried to be a strong person," she says. "Mother was a strong person."

Find out how Bryan tracked down expert witness Jerry Hurst who gave pivotal evidence in her case.

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