The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

May 7, 2010

Mom cleared of murder to appear on TV

A Wyoming County native spent four years in a Louisiana jail, accused of killing her three children and facing the death penalty.

But Amanda Kelley has now been cleared of the three murder charges and has returned to southern West Virginia. Tonight, Kelley’s story will be featured on national TV.

The Friday night episode of ABC’s “20/20” deals with questionable arson investigations, according to information from both Kelley and the ABC website.

In 2002, Kelley, formerly known as Amanda Gutweiler Hypes, was indicted for three counts of first-degree murder in the 2001 deaths of her three children: Sadii Plumm, 10; Luke Hayden, 6; and Jessica Gutweiler, 3. The children died in a Tioga, La., house fire that, at that time, authorities said Kelley deliberately set, according to the Town Talk of Alexandria, La.

A judge threw out the indictment in 2006, and the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld that decision. Prosecutors had to start over, the Town Talk reported.

The original prosecutor retired in October 2008, and the case was reassigned to Michael Shannon, assistant district attorney for Rapides Parish, according to a release from his office. Shannon was instructed to review all evidence and expert opinions. The office contacted Dr. John D. DeHaan, a “leading expert” in fire investigations. DeHaan had originally issued an opinion basically supporting the Louisiana Fire Marshal’s conclusion that the fire was deliberately set.

But in December 2008, DeHaan advised he had conducted additional tests and collected more data, the release stated. A supplemental report stated his original conclusion could not now be defended to a suitable degree of scientific certainty.

Shannon said accelerant was not found on Kelley’s clothes or in her car. The crime scene was compromised because a concrete slab was cleared with a bulldozer before it could be fully examined.

Prosecutors could not prove intent, either, Shannon said. There was no financial motive. There were no life insurance policies on the children, and the house had no mortgage.

However, Shannon said they did find negligence. He said evidence pointed to Kelley leaving the children unattended on “a number of occasions” and having 10-year-old Sadii keep an eye on her younger siblings. Kelley was then charged with three counts of second-degree cruelty to juveniles.

Earlier this year, Kelley pled guilty to a lesser charge, negligent homicide, Shannon said. She was given credit for the approximately four years she was in jail and awaiting trial for the original murder charges.

“The right thing to do was to call it a crime of negligence instead of a crime with intent,” Shannon said. “...It’s over.”                                                

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“I don’t think it’s all for nothing,” Kelley said. “You can choose to be bitter or better, and I’m choosing to be better.”

Kelley has since remarried and is living in southern West Virginia. The Mullens native declined to name the town where she now lives, saying she still receives death threats.

She is almost finished with an associate’s degree in business administration, and she plans to pursue a degree in accounting. She also plans to start a ministry and write a book about her experiences.

Kelley said the near-decade she spent facing murder charges — and a possible death sentence — that is now over, still hasn’t totally sunk in. But she credits her faith in God for pulling her through that time.

“If you trust in God, He will bring out the truth for you,” she said.

Kelley disputes the prosecution’s assertion that she habitually left the children unattended. She could only recall about three times they were briefly left alone, and she had a baby-sitter. Her oldest child was almost 11, and they were all responsible and well-behaved. The day of the fire, she had only left for about 20 minutes so she could make it to a bank before it closed.

“My children were my life — the reason I got up every morning,” she said.

She emphasized that she would not plead guilty to a crime she did not commit. However, she understood the negligent homicide charge to mean that if someone would still be alive if another person — who had meant no harm — had made a different decision. That applied, she said.

Kelley said her relationship with God was shaky when she was first put in jail. She had just been through tumultuous events and had felt numb, like a shell of a person.

But during the four years and two months she spent there, that relationship grew much stronger. The people there who were the kindest to her were the jail inmates and staff.

The staff, she said, became like family. It was hard for her to leave them behind when she was released because she knew she would probably never see them again.

“(The inmates) prayed and fasted with me. A lot of them were good people who had made wrong choices,” she said. “...I thought, ‘I’ve never done anything wrong. I don’t belong here. This is scary.’

“But it was like God said, ‘As much as I love you, I love them.’ I wanted to be a light in that place.”

— E-mail: apridemore@register-herald.com

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