DETROIT (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday overturned the murder conviction of a southwest Michigan woman who was accused of setting a fire and then running over her burning husband with her van as he tried to flee their home.
Linda Stermer’s rights were violated when her attorney failed to effectively challenge key evidence, the court said in a 2-1 decision that found other problems with the trial.
Stermer, now 55, was convicted in Van Buren County in 2010 and sentenced to life in prison. However, she has been free on bond for nearly 18 months while challenging her conviction on constitutional grounds.
In 2007, a fire broke out at the home of Linda and Todd Stermer in Lawrence, in southwestern Michigan. She got into her van to seek help but it got stuck in mud. Her husband was run over by the vehicle, although the cause of death was linked to the fire.
Prosecutors alleged that Stermer doused Todd with gasoline and set him on fire, a day after he learned she was involved in an extramarital affair. Stermer told insurance investigators that Todd had an oil lamp and candles burning in the house.
Stermer’s trial attorney, Jeff Getting, didn’t consult an expert to rebut testimony that the fire was arson, not an accident, the appeals court noted.
“There was no reasonable basis for trial counsel not to have consulted a fire expert. … In a duel, it might be a reasonable choice to elect a sword fight over pistols, but once you choose the latter, it makes no sense to show up without any bullets,” Judge Eric Clay said.
In dissent, Judge Jeffrey Sutton said there was no “plausible path” to overturn the conviction.
“The possibility of an accident suspends belief,” Sutton said. ”Two remarkably unlikely events would have to happen: Todd accidentally would have to set the house and himself on fire, and his wife accidentally would have to drive over him in the front yard.”
All that was missing, Sutton said, “was a film of the mariticide.”
Mike Bedford, the prosecutor in Van Buren County, didn’t immediately reply to a message seeking comment.
Stermer’s appellate attorney, Wolfgang Mueller, said she will have expert fire witnesses if Bedford pursues another trial.
“I think the prosecutor will realize how bad this case is and dismiss the charges,” Mueller said.