After spending three years in prison, the conviction of a former Pine River woman on a charge of first-degree arson has been reversed and remanded back to Cass County District Court.
Tracy Lee Nelson, 46, was found guilty by a Cass County jury on a charge of first-degree arson on July 28, 1999. She was convicted of setting the Sept. 25, 1997, fire that burned her house in Pine River. She was sentenced in October 1999 to 58 months prison. She appealed her conviction.
In an order filed Oct. 1, the Minnesota Court of Appeals concluded Nelson's trial attorney "performed below an objective standard of reasonableness and the deficient performance prejudiced the defense."
As a result, the Court of Appeals vacated the conviction and reversed and remanded the case to the district court for a new trial.
During her summer 1999 trial, Nelson was represented by Little Falls attorney Gregory Larson. He could not be reached for comment.
For her appeal, Nelson hired the law firm of Meshbesher and Spence Ltd., Minneapolis. Her new counsel argued Larson inadequately investigated and defended Nelson's case.
According to the facts stated in the Court of Appeals order, "Nelson's new counsel introduced a letter from her previous attorney to the prosecutor written just six days before trial stating that he had only interviewed one witness and was not sure what his testimony would be, as he did not take any notes. The new counsel also called a criminal-defense expert who testified that the previous attorney's representation lacked adequate investigation and disregarded the evidence suggesting that a third party had started the fire.
"According to the expert, had the previous attorney investigated the case more thoroughly and argued all plausible defense theories available at the time of trial, Nelson would likely have been acquitted."
The facts of the case, as noted in the Court of Appeals order, later state, "In his defense, the previous attorney stated that he intended the letter to the prosecutor to be misleading. He claimed that he had conducted several interviews before the trial, but did not want to disclose them and compromise the quality of his defense."
Asked about the appellate court order, attorney Ron Meshbesher, of Meshbesher and Spence, who now represents Nelson, said, "I'm extremely pleased with it because I did not think she had a fair trial."
He said Nelson's defense case was not thoroughly and promptly investigated and "as a result an innocent woman was convicted."
Meshbesher said he was contacted by Nelson's parents after the conviction to consider an appeal. He said Nelson's father has since died and that Nelson, who was incarcerated, was not able to attend his funeral and that her father did not have the opportunity to see his daughter released from prison.
She was released Oct. 11.
Nelson declined to comment, at this time, about the Court of Appeals decision.
It is now the responsibility of the Cass County attorney's office to determine how to proceed.
Cass County Attorney Earl Maus said he is weighing his options. He could further appeal the decision, retry the case or dismiss the charge.
"We're reviewing the matter further," he said.
He said he was disappointed by the decision by the Court of Appeals but said that the issue -- lack of defense representation -- was out of the prosecution's control.
"We put a lot of time and effort into it," he said of the case.
Maus said Nelson, before she was released, had served nearly the entire prison sentence.
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