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Student acquitted in apartment fire

After two hours of deliberations, a jury found Lexington graduate student Michael D. Mitchell not guilty of setting an apartment on fire at the Kirklevington Hills complex.

Jury deliberations in the arson trial, which started last week, began about 12:50 p.m. Monday in U.S. District Court.

"I can't describe it," said Mitchell's mother, Beverly Mitchell, as she left the courtroom in tears. "There's no way to describe it."

Michael Mitchell hugged family and friends before leaving the building. He declined to comment.

Federal prosecutors argued that Mitchell wanted to get out of his lease without paying a penalty because of a series of at least three fires at the complex from February 2005 to December 2006.

"The defendant knew what he was doing," Assistant U.S. Attorney Hydee Hawkins said during closing arguments Monday morning. "The defendant's a smart and tidy guy. It was a very neat fire."

But Mitchell's defense argued that other people might be responsible for the fire. Defense lawyer Patrick Nash said a lot of gasoline was used in the blaze, but people who talked to Mitchell immediately after the fire did not notice anything suspicious about him.

"He didn't smell of gasoline," Nash said. "He didn't have burns. He didn't smell like smoke."

Nash also said Mitchell did not have a motive, and it would not have been difficult for the defendant's family to get the money needed to break the lease.

The government said Mitchell, who was indicted in June, stole the key to unit 96A, two stories above his apartment and where the apartment owner lived while in town. They said Mitchell doused the carpet with gasoline and set it ablaze.

Hawkins said Mitchell lived near the the spot where the apartment's owners parked their silver Range Rover, and the keys to the owner's apartment were left in the vehicle.

Investigators said the apartment's carpet had swirl marks in an S-pattern, apparently from someone's pouring gasoline on it and setting it ablaze. A bottle of Rain-X was found outside the apartment, half-filled with gasoline. The fingerprints on the bottle were traced to Mitchell, according to investigators.

But Nash told jurors during closing arguments that it wouldn't make sense for Mitchell to hide all other evidence, and be careful enough to not burn himself or get gasoline on himself, and then leave a Rain-X bottle behind, which could be traced to him.

The apartment management would allow only renters whose units were uninhabitable to break their leases. Prosecutors said Mitchell was not suspected in any of the other fires.

After the verdict, Hawkins said that the case relied heavily on circumstantial evidence and that the jurors had done their jobs. She declined to comment further.