Judge: Homeless woman not guilty

May 9, 2008 4:01:27 PM PDT
A homeless woman was found not guilty by reason of insanity for starting a fatal fire last year. After a year of treatment, Mary Smith, who has a history of mental illness, was found competent to stand trial in the case. However, on Friday a judge determined that she was not mentally fit to be held responsible for the fatal fire.

Smith was accused of setting a dollar bill ablaze in the stairwell of a Wrigleyville apartment building. That blaze killed four people- Jennifer Carlson, 24; Jason Bowers, 24; Jerod Pilgreen, 21; and Joseph Schultz, 24. All four originally were from Belvidere.

Before issuing the statement at the end of the bench trial, Judge James Linn called the case one of the saddest he'd heard. All parties agree that the system that allowed a woman with a history of mental illness to remain on the streets and without help needs to be fixed.

"Mary's family was desperate to help her. They tried for years and years and years, but the system kept turning her away," said Jacqueline Ross, Smith's Attorney.

Smith, a diagnosed schizophrenic, had been in and out of mental institutions since 1989. After a stay at an institution in 2006, she lived on the street. Then, in March of 2007, she lit the fire in what she told police was an attempt to keep warm after losing her shoes.

"There is no reason she should have been out on the street and able to do this," said Sue Pilgreen, victim's mother.

Pilgreen and a friend, Schultz, were visiting Carlson and Bowers the night of the fire.

"I am shocked at the verdict. I thought that she needed to take some kind of responsibility," said Barb Carlson, victim's mother.

Prosecutors said Smith knew she committed a crime. They asked the judge to find her guilty of arson and first-degree murder. Defense attorneys argued Smith was incoherent in a videotaped confession and said she was only fit to stand trial because of medication.

"Everything before the fires and after the fires ... truly insane," said Ross.


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