Court of appeals rules in favor of Michigan woman accused of murdering husband

Linda Stermer – whose conviction in her husband's death was vacated in 2018 – says she accidentally ran over her husband after he escaped a house fire.

The Death of Todd Stermer
The Death of Todd Stermer 42:20

A Michigan woman will remain free, after judges with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Friday to uphold a federal judge's decision to overturn her conviction. Linda Stermer was convicted of murder and arson in the 2007 death of her husband, Todd Stermer.

Authorities have long believed she set the family home on fire to kill her husband and then ran him over with a van when he escaped the flames. Detectives spent two years investigating - focusing on a troubled marriage, and the fact that Linda ran Todd over when he escaped the fire. She was arrested and charged in 2009.

"You must know, Linda, that it's very difficult for people to believe that your husband is burned in a fire, he escapes, he's still alive, badly burned and then you hit him with a car," Erin Moriarty asked Linda in an interview for "The Death of Todd Stermer." "What, you just happened to have that kind of bad luck?"

"Bad luck doesn't even describe it," Linda said. 

After her conviction, Linda wrote her own petition to the federal court. In part, she blamed her conviction on her own defense attorney, who had chosen not to hire a fire expert. 

"48 Hours" spoke to veteran fire investigator Robert Trenkle, who says he would have testified there was not enough evidence to prove the fire that killed Todd Stermer was deliberately set. The investigation was "inadequate," he said, adding that the evidence does not support the state's theory that Linda doused Todd with gasoline and then set him on fire. 

"I've asked probably 30 or 40 people who are firefighters, investigators," he said. "They all laughed when I told them about somebody getting out of a building after they ... had gasoline poured all over them." 

A federal judge who called an evidentiary hearing found the prosecutor was wrong telling jurors that Linda had two cell phones inside the van, when there was no evidence of that. He also found fault with the defense, saying the attorney failed his client by not calling a fire expert. 

In 2018, nearly 12 years after the fire, the federal judge ultimately decided Linda Stermer didn't get a fair trial. He vacated her conviction and Linda was released from prison. 

Michigan's attorney general had appealed the federal decision, asking that Linda's conviction be reinstated. In delivering the court opinion, released Friday, Judge Eric Clay, with one judge joining him, weighed heavily on the improper remarks made during trial. The other judge dissented. 

"The state says the prosecutor's statements were rooted in the evidence," writes Clay. "In reality[,] they were predominantly based on the prosecutor's own assessment that Stermer's version of events was not credible." 

Judge Clay noted that the prosecution's case was not "impossibly weak." He acknowledged that circumstantial evidence - while possibly explained by Linda - could point toward her guilt. But he concluded that "given the relative weakness of this evidence, the fairness of her trial was irreparably undercut by the prosecutor's closing, in which he repeatedly opined that Stermer was untruthful and called her 'a diabolical, scheming, manipulative liar.'" 

Friday's ruling is not the end for prosecutors, who have 120 days to decide if they will try the case or have it dismissed. Van Buren County Prosecutor Michael Bedford says he "plans to retry the case if in fact that is necessary."

He points out that the appellate process is not necessarily over. The Attorney General can decide to appeal the decision to overturn Stermer's conviction with the Supreme Court of the United States.

Bedford tells 48 Hours, "Once that part of it is final, we will work with the trial judge in our county to get the ball rolling for a new trial if necessary."