Ford found guilty, could face 10 years for arson

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Lewisburg man was found guilty Tuesday evening at the end of a two-day trial on charges of aggravated burglary and arson.

A jury of seven women and five men took almost three hours to decide that Mitchell J. Ford, 33, formerly of Nashville Highway, was guilty as charged.

Ford will be sentenced on May 4. He could face 6-10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine on each count.

The defense presented no proof, and Ford did not testify. After the prosecution is finished, 30 minutes is allotted for the defense to decide if the defendant will testify on their own behalf. Ford and attorney Bill Harold of the Public Defender's Office used nearly all the time in a discussion that occasionally grew heated.

Finally, under oath, Ford told Circuit Court Judge Robert Crigler that it had been his "free and voluntary decision" not to testify.

This could have been motivated by the fact that by taking the witness stand a defendant lays himself open to prosecution questions about his prior criminal record, and, thus, destruction of his reputation as a law-abiding citizen.

Ford's criminal record is lengthy, according to courthouse sources. He is on the Sex Offender Registry for statutory rapes committed in 2003, and was on parole when he committed the burglary and arson on April 23, 2010.

"The only person who could have started that fire is the person who was coming out of that house," Assistant District Attorney Chris Collins said in the first part of the prosecution's closing argument.

For the defense, Harold tried to emphasize discrepancies in the witnesses' testimony, and said James Gailor was "so excited he's not thinking straight" when he caught up with what he thought was Ford's car on state Route 64 a few hours after the fire. Harold also emphasized that Ford had no motive for setting a fire that he knew would put his father, a Lewisburg fire fighter, in danger.

Assistant District Attorney Eddie Barnard then took full advantage of the prosecution's opportunity to have the last word, taking jury members back through the evidence they'd heard.

"You rarely have as good a proof," Barnard said, concentrating on the eyewitness testimony of James Gailor and Clellene Banks, who both identified Ford as the man they saw leaving 603 Old Lane Road in the gold Saturn with a distinctive license plate, moments before smoke started coming out of the house. Banks even identified him again after he'd been arrested. "If she'd said 'no' they would have turned him loose," Barnard said.

"What we want is justice," Barnard said, and jury members brought back the guilty verdict nearly three hours later.