RUSH TO JUDGMENT
By Sandra Nix
Edited by Dolores Kennedy
On July 1, 1998, 25-year-old John McFarland was released from prison on probation. He had served seven years for crimes to which he had pled guilty in 1991. Trying to get his life together, John returned home to Orlando, Florida to live with his family, found a job working at a local stable, and started a part-time job at a wings and sub shop, where he cooked nights and weekends. John saved his money and bought a used car, license and insurance. He complied with his probation and paid his restitution as he had been instructed by his probation officer. He spent time getting to know his younger sisters and other family members after his long absence.
John McFarland wanted to put the past behind him -- but that was not to happen.
In October of 1998, just three months after his release from prison, John went to a friend's house to spend the night. Joey Hughy was a childhood friend and was currently employed with John at the wings and sub shop.
At about 3:00 a.m., fires broke out in several homes in the neighborhood behind Joey Hughy's residence. The Orange County Fire and Sheriff Departments responded immediately to the blaze, blocking off the area and attempting to control the fire. Deputy Neil Mitchell was one of the officers on the scene. At about 3:20 a.m., he saw a fire bomb sail through the air, striking the roof of a building he stood near. Believing the object was thrown from the area behind the scene of the fire, he called for assistance and went to the residence where John McFarland was staying for the night.
There were no lights in that residence and no one was out in the yard. The officers woke the home's inhabitants and spoke with Kristian Hutsenpillar, Joey Hughy's girlfriend, when she opened the front door. According to the Orange County Sheriff's Department, Kristian told the officers that she had heard John McFarland and John Pinkham, another resident of the home, say that they had started the fires. The two men were arrested immediately and charged with three counts of arson and possession and manufacturing of a fire bomb. They were taken to Orange County Jail.
Evidence, which included lighter fluid and a burned, twisted paper towel, was gathered from the Hughy home. Hughy told the officers that he had used the lighter fluid and paper towel to light their barbecue grill on the evening before the fires broke out. No one checked McFarland's hands or clothing for traces of the flammable liquid that was believed to have started the fires. Instead, they took pictures of the tattoos he had acquired while in prison.
The homes that burned belonged to black families. McFarland and Pinkham were white. Thus, the two men were suspected of a hate crime. The media looked at John McFarland's record. It looked at the tattoos he had acquired in prison. And it rushed to judgment.
Long before he appeared in a court of law, John McFarland was convicted in the "court of the press." As his mother, Sandra Nix, commented: "I think he was an easy mark for law enforcement officers that knew him and knew he had a past. I think when the officers came to the house and saw him there, they looked no further for a more likely suspect."
John McFarland and John Pinkham were charged with three counts of arson and possession and manufacturing of a fire bomb. After numerous court appearances, the arson charges were amended to include arson evidencing prejudice.
The Orlando Sentinel published an article on October 18, which headlined, "Did Hate Burn Neighborhood?" and recalled John McFarland as the suspect with the swastika tattooed under his right eye. After further investigation, the hate crime charges were dropped. On November 4, the Orlando Sentinel admitted that "Bomb Suspects Won't Be Charged With Hate Crime."
"Two white men accused of firebombing the homes of three black Pine Hills residents have been charged with arson but won't be prosecuted for a hate crime. Orange County prosecutors said there wasn't enough evidence to show the victims were targeted because of their race. John D. McFarland, 25, of Clermont and Pine Hills resident John M. Pinkham, 19, are suspected of hurling bottles filled with flammable liquid at homes Oct. 4.
"Pinkham and McFarland were scheduled to go to trial together, with separate juries. The morning of jury selection, the prosecution dropped the charges of arson against John Pinkham, but chose to continue with jury selection for McFarland. McFarland's attorney filed a petition to dismiss the charges of arson against him on the grounds that the right to speedy trial had expired. The judge granted the dismissal, and the arson charges against John McFarland were dismissed."
And that is where John McFarland's story should have ended. But it did not.
Two months after the dismissal of the charges against him, John attended a violation of probation hearing. It was clear that no evidence linked him to the crime of arson. His fingerprints did not appear on any of the evidence, and Kristian Hutsenpillar's testimony had been proven unreliable. As a witness for the state, she admitted that she and Joey Hughy had "pot" in the home the night of the fire, and she told officers that Pinkham and McFarland were guilty because she was afraid of going to jail.
As a result of the hearing, John McFarland's probation was revoked and he was ordered to serve his three ten-year sentences, which were to have run concurrent, consecutively.
The state appealed the judge's decision to dismiss the arson charges against John and won the appeal. John's attorney asked the Supreme Court to review the decision. The Court declined to accept jurisdiction and denied the petition for review. In June, John's 30-year sentence was reversed by the 5th District Court of Appeals. He and his attorneys wait to see if the state will appeal that decision.
Thus, John McFarland, whose probation was revoked because of arson charges, faces a 30-year sentence, in spite of the fact that those very charges were dropped over a year ago.
For further information or contact with John McFarland or Sandra Nix, you may e-mail Sandra at Emrstruck@aol.com or Playinladi@aol.com.
© Justice Denied