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Arson conviction supported by sufficient evidence

Appellant’s arson conviction is affirmed because the record supports findings that the fire in her house was not accidental, that appellant set the fire and that she did so with malice.

Arson elements

“To convict Goodman of arson of an occupied dwelling under Code § 18.2-77, the jury had to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the evidence (1) overcame the presumption that the fire was accidental, (2) showed that at least one of the fires was deliberately set, (3) showed that Goodman was the one who set at least one fire, and (4) showed that Goodman set at least that one fire with malice.

“Goodman does not dispute that there was a fire in the house or that the house was occupied when the fire began. Instead, she argues there was insufficient evidence to show she set one or more fires deliberately. We disagree and therefore affirm.

Not accidental

“First, the evidence was sufficient for the jury to conclude that the Commonwealth overcame the presumption of accident and proved the corpus delicti of arson. ‘The corpus delicti of arson must consist of proof that the fire was of incendiary, rather than of accidental origin.’”

There was competing testimony from expert witnesses for the prosecution and appellant as to whether the fire was caused by an accident. “Dr. Beyler testified that the investigation did not properly eliminate all potential sources of accidental ignition.

“However, Henderson testified extensively to the sources he considered and ruled out as potential sources of accidental ignition, specifically dealing with every potential source Dr. Beyler mentioned.

“The only potential accidental ignition source Henderson did not examine was an electrical air-conditioning device in the attic, but Henderson ruled that out as a potential source of accidental ignition by pointing out the lack of damage to the attic and insulation, much of which was visible in pictures he showed the jury.

“He opined that if the fire had started in the attic, there would have been extensive damage that would have been easily visible in the photographs. Additionally, Dr. Beyler conceded that if the bedroom doors were closed during the fire, his hypothesis that burning embers from the attic could have started the fires in the bedrooms would be incorrect.

“Henderson said the only viable explanation was that open flames came into contact with combustible materials in various parts of the house. Contact between open flames and ordinary combustibles could only have happened if someone deliberately applied open flames to those parts of the house, especially since Goodman affirmed that she did not light any candles for at least several days.

“This evidence justified the jury in concluding that the evidence indicated that someone set the fire intentionally.

Who set the fire?

“Second, the evidence was sufficient for the jury to conclude that Goodman was the one who set the fire. Goodman told Lieutenant Barton that she was the only one in the house.

“Her son testified that he had last visited the house a week before. No evidence suggested anyone came into the house to set the fires.

“In fact, Goodman testified that her dog would have barked furiously if anyone had broken in, but he did not bark until the flames broke out in the kitchen.

“Also, Goodman had a lighter in one of her bathrooms with which she could have set the fires. This evidence justified the jury in concluding that the evidence showed Goodman was the person who set the fires.”


“Third, the evidence was sufficient for the jury to conclude that Goodman set the fire with malice. …

“[T]he jury could infer from Goodman deliberately setting the fire that she did ‘a wrongful act intentionally.’ Although Goodman argues that she lacked any motive to burn her own house, the evidence showed she lit the fire intentionally.

“Goodman does not argue that she was not mentally capable of forming the intent to deliberately set a fire or that she could have set the fire in her sleep. Therefore, the only reasonable explanation was that Goodman, knowing what she was doing, deliberately set four separate fires.

“Because Goodman denies she set the fires, she of course offers no justification for setting her house on fire. Although it is unclear why Goodman set fire to her home, we cannot disturb the jury’s conclusion that she intended to do so.”


Goodman v. Commonwealth, Record No. 0509-21-2, April 26, 2022. CAV (Athey) from the Circuit Court of Hanover County (Willis) David B. Hargett for appellant. Matthew J. Beyrau for appellee. VLW 022-7-105, 9 pp. Unpublished opinion.

VLW 022-7-105

Virginia Lawyers Weekly