Image: Kathleen Hilton
William B. Plowman  /  AP
Kathleen Hilton, shown here in 1999, was aquitted of five counts of second-degree murder and arson on Wednesday.
updated 2/18/2009 6:31:14 PM ET 2009-02-18T23:31:14

After 10 years in prison without a trial, a 62-year-old woman was acquitted Wednesday of setting a fire that killed five people in 1999.

A Lawrence Superior Court jury found Kathleen Hilton not guilty on five counts of second-degree murder and arson charges.

Prosecutors contended Hilton set the February 1999 fire at a three-floor house in Lynn where her son's ex-girlfriend, Krystina Sutherland, lived because she was angry Sutherland wouldn't let her son see his two children.

Assistant District Attorney Marcia Slingerland said Hilton hoped that burning down the house would leave Sutherland homeless and force her to return to her son with the children.

Hilton's attorney, Michael Natola, told the jury his client would never do anything to harm her grandchildren.

Sutherland and her two children escaped from their second-floor apartment, as did the first-floor occupants. But 34-year-old Heriberto Feliciano; his 32-year-old wife, Sonia Hernandez; their two daughters, Sonia and Maria; and niece Glorimar Santiago died of smoke inhalation.

Hilton spent more than a decade in state prison awaiting trial as her lawyer fought to keep the jury from hearing an alleged confession she made to police. The defense claimed Hilton made the statements to try to protect her son, the initial prime suspect who had threatened to burn down the house.

Judges, legal scholars and lawyers who practice criminal law have said they could not recall a similar case in the state of someone found competent to stand trial who had been imprisoned for so long without one, The Boston Globe reported.

A spokesman for Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett declined to comment on Hilton's acquittal. Natola did not immediately return a call for comment.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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