Arson charge reverberated through teen's family

March 13, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

In most respects, Mitzi Speece is an average teen-ager. She hangs out with her friends, plays lacrosse, struggles with German class and occasionally argues with her parents.

Last fall, however, her adolescent world took a dramatic turn. The petite 15-year-old was charged with arson at her Harford County school.

"It's been a very, very stressful thing," said her father, Fred A. Speece.

He and his wife, Catherine, will never forget the day they got a phone call from Stephen R. Williams, assistant principal at Aberdeen High School: "There's been a fire at school and there is a question of Mitzi's involvement in it."

Convinced that their ninth-grade daughter was innocent, the family rallied around her, determined not to be intimidated by a series of school hearings that led to Mitzi's 25-day suspension from school and finally to juvenile court.

They set out to prove that the charges against Mitzi were unwarranted. "People should not be afraid to see the system through," said Mrs. Speece, referring to the family's dogged attempts to understand how the school administrative process works.

Unable to afford an attorney and not meeting financial guidelines to be assisted by a public defender, Mr. Speece acted as his daughter's counsel at the recent juvenile hearing. Mitzi was one of three co-defendants in the case.

Mr. Speece cross-examined witnesses and raised enough questions about Mitzi's role in the fire that the judge dismissed the charges against her.

"I feel vindicated," said Mr. Speece, an assistant Boy Scout leader, who has lived in Aberdeen with his family for 12 years.

"It's a great relief," said her mother. "We had this hanging over us all through the [Christmas] holidays."

Complicated case

While Mr. Speece is certain his daughter told the truth, he does point out that the judge said he was 80 percent sure that Mitzi was involved in the arson and 20 percent sure that she wasn't.

It was the shadow of a doubt that gave Mitzi her freedom in an emotional case that pitted several ninth-grade girls against each other.

"I've had homicide cases that have been simpler," said Wallace C. Brenton, a former Baltimore City police officer who is the school system's safety and security officer.

The facts are clear enough: At 8:20 a.m. Oct. 28, a fire was discovered in a locker in the girls locker room at Aberdeen High, and the school was evacuated.

The flames were put out with a fire extinguisher by teachers, and the state fire marshal's office was called to investigate because the fire allegedly had been set.

Mr. Brenton also arrived on the scene to look into the incident.

Then the story becomes more convoluted: Who was in the locker room at the time of the fire and to whom did two cigarette lighters belong?

There also were claims of jealousy over a boyfriend and the question of who was with whom while several girls were fixing their hair.

Eventually, one girl accused two others, and tearful admissions of guilt were signed.

"Mitzi was coerced into writing the confession," said Mrs. Speece, who was with her daughter at the time. "He [Mr. Brenton] had us so upset."

Mr. Brenton, who has been with Harford schools for 15 years, puts a different spin on the story. "The mother coerced the statement," he said, recalling yelling and screaming between Mrs. Speece and Mitzi at the time.

"He said sign this or you won't go home," remembered Mitzi.

It was a signed statement they later regretted.

"Mitzi was railroaded," said her father, who works as a patrol boat captain at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

prepared the case the best we could," said Mr. Brenton. "She [Mitzi] identified the lighter as hers and we had the signed statement."

Suspension appealed

Mr. Speece's struggle to clear his daughter's name started several months before the March 2 juvenile hearing and after Mitzi was suspended for 25 days from school for the arson.

He appealed the school board's suspension decision to no avail, said. Meanwhile, Mitzi spent most of November in Harford's alternative education program at Bel Air High School.

The classes, which meet three nights a week, give students who have been suspended or expelled the opportunity to keep up with their school work. The program is not a panacea, however, since only four major subject areas -- language, science, math and social sciences -- are taught.

"She fell behind in her German and business classes," Mrs. Speece said. She is in danger of failing her language class since she lost a whole month in school, her mother said.

Mr. Speece also sought help in Circuit Court, convinced that Mitzi hadn't been given due process. That motion was denied.

Now that Mitzi has been cleared in juvenile court, the family is asking the school system to expunge Mitzi's suspension from her school record and to reimburse them the $89.66 they had to pay for Mitzi to return to school Dec. 7.

The money was Mitzi's share of the $299 restitution the school system sought for damages to the gym locker and the contents of the locker.

'We acted with due process'

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