Date: 1/12/2009

Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) — For nearly a decade, Kathleen Hilton has been in jail, though she’s been convicted of nothing.

Prosecutors say the grandmother set a fire that killed five people, including three young girls, because she was allegedly angry her son’s ex-girlfriend wouldn’t let him see his two kids.

Her trial is set to begin Tuesday on murder and arson charges after an extraordinary delay while her lawyer fought to keep the jury from hearing an alleged confession she made after the Feb. 24, 1999, blaze in a Lynn triple-decker.

Her grandchildren survived, but the blaze killed another family in the building.

Hilton, now 62, has spent most of the last decade at MCI-Framingham, a medium-security women’s prison where she works in the kitchen and watches television, said her attorney, Michael Natola.

In Massachusetts, it usually takes one to two years for murder cases to go to trial.

“Ten years is aberrational,” said Michael Cassidy, a professor at Boston College Law School. “Sometimes, complex murder cases can take two or three years to get to trial but 10 years is well beyond the average.”

Natola said he had to push for the statements to be suppressed — no matter how long it took. The case twice went to the Supreme Judicial Court.

“There were two competing constitutional rights at work here — her right to a speedy trial and her right to a fair trial by virtue of having unlawfully taken statements suppressed,” he said.

Ultimately, the jury at Hilton’s trial will be allowed to hear portions of her statements to police, including her claim she started the fire by pouring scented oil on the wooden stairway and lighting it with a cigarette. She allegedly said she hoped that if her son’s girlfriend, Krystina Sutherland, had nowhere to live, she and the two children would return to her son, Charles Loayza, then 22.

But jurors won’t be allowed to hear a statement she allegedly made to a court officer after her arraignment: “My son, I hope he forgives me. I could have killed my grandchildren.”

Natola claims Hilton made the statements to try to protect her son, who had threatened to burn down the house and was initially the prime suspect in the fire. Police later verified her son’s alibi for the night of the fire.

“She was trying to cover up for her son,” he said.

Natola said Hilton had a close relationship with her grandchildren.

“It makes absolutely no sense that a person who was almost obsessively concerned with her grandkids would go ahead and set the house on fire where they lived,” he said.

Sutherland and the two children escaped their second-floor apartment. The first-floor occupants also got out safely. But the five people who lived on the third floor all died of smoke inhalation.

Killed were: Heriberto Feliciano, 34; his wife, Sonia Hernandez, 32; their daughters, Sonia, 12, and Maria, 13; and their niece, Glorimar Santiago, 11. The couple had moved to the mainland United States from their native Puerto Rico about 12 years earlier. Attempts to reach relatives in Puerto Rico were unsuccessful.

Sutherland, who is now married and lives in Lynn, is expected to be a key witness for prosecutors. She did not return a call seeking comment. It is unclear whether Loayza will be called to testify. Natola said Hilton has not seen him in years and does not know where he is.

Natola said he will also argue that Hilton made the statements involuntarily. Shortly after her arrest, she was found incompetent to stand trial after she said her cell was “haunted” and she saw “spirits.” But later, psychiatrists deemed her competent, meaning she could understand the charges against her and assist her attorney with her defense.

Cassidy, the law professor, said the passage of a decade could hurt the prosecution’s case.

“The longer the time passes between the event and the trial, the more likely witnesses can get sick, die, move, come to court but have failed memories, get into trouble themselves … that’s where it’s a real risk for the government to wait this long.”

Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said the delay was unavoidable.

“We would have liked to have tried the case sooner, but we respect the process and the defendant’s rights,” he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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