Prosecutors to retry Henline after mistrial

By Kevin Schofield, Journal contributor

Last month a Seattle jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict in the trial of Dwight Henline for arson, after hearing testimony from nearly fifty witnesses and viewing over 100 pieces of evidence. Henline was indicted in May 2022 for allegedly starting the fire that burned four buildings along Spring Street in Friday Harbor on April 7 of last year, destroying several local businesses including Herb’s Tavern, Crow’s Nest Coffee, Crystal Seas Kayaking and Windermere Real Estate.

Henline was charged by the office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Western Washington with violating the federal arson statute. He has been detained in a federal correction facility since his arrest in April 2022, while his case proceeds. After eight days of testimony, almost entirely by the prosecution’s witnesses, the jury notified the court on its third day of deliberations that it was unable to reach a verdict. U.S. District Court Judge John Chun, who presided over the case, read the jury some additional general advice on how to break their impasse and sent them back to continue deliberating. But mid-afternoon that same day the jury once again declared that they were unable to reach a verdict; minutes later, the judge declared a mistrial.

The prosecution argued that Henline is a troubled and angry man whose life hit rock-bottom on April 6th: he had lost both his job and his housing, his friends had largely abandoned him, and he was planning to leave Friday Harbor for good on the evening ferry. But just before boarding the ferry that evening he allegedly bought a container of cigarette lighter fuel and poured much of it out and set it ablaze on the lower wooden deck behind Crystal Seas Kayaking. According to the prosecution, that fire then smoldered for several hours before turning into a large conflagration around 3:45 a.m. the next morning.

Investigators pieced together security camera footage from several sources tracing Henline’s movements around town on the evening of the 6th. In a set of events critical to the prosecution’s case, video showed Henline purchasing lighter fuel at the Little Store at 9:53 p.m., then walking outside of Herb’s Tavern and down Spring Street toward the waterfront at 9:56 p.m. A security camera inside Windermere Real Estate’s conference room showed a bright flare-up, consistent with a fire, behind the building at 10:04 p.m. that lasted for 34 seconds. Then a security camera at Spring Street Landing observed Henline at the foot of Spring Street, outside Cask & Schooner, at 10:05 p.m.

But according to a court filing by the defense, in an interview with prosecution and defense attorneys after the trial concluded some jurors indicated there were several issues preventing them from reaching a guilty verdict beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard for conviction. In fact, the final jury vote before the mistrial was declared was apparently 10-2 favoring “not guilty.”

Two contentious issues loomed large during the trial. First, while the prosecution's evidence placed Henline on the block of Spring Street with flammable liquid in his possession at the time the fire supposedly started, they presented no evidence that directly confirmed he was on the lower deck behind Crystal Seas Kayaking or that he actually started a fire there during the crucial nine minutes between 9:56 and 10:05. In fact, there was no evidence presented at all about his whereabouts or activities during that time. Henline chose not to testify; that is his right, and juries in criminal trials are instructed that they may not draw negative inferences against a defendant for not testifying. But that meant that during the trial he could not be asked to account for his time. Also, as is common in arson cases, there was no residue left from the liquid used to start the fire, and there was no DNA or fingerprint evidence that survived the blaze.

Second, the prosecution argued that after the initial flare-up, the fire smoldered for over five hours before engulfing the buildings. The defense’s sole witness in the trial, a forensic chemist named Dale Mann, was called as an expert witness to rebut that assertion. He testified that a fire ignited with a flammable liquid on a wooden deck could not smolder for that long: it would either die out or become a larger fire in much less than five hours. The prosecution called multiple expert witnesses to try to refute Mann’s claim, but their witnesses were only able to assert that it was theoretically possible for such a fire to smolder that long. They were unable to cite any cases where a similar fire had smoldered for more than ninety minutes before becoming a larger fire.

Nevertheless, the prosecution presented a significant amount of other evidence suggesting Henline’s guilt. A collection of former friends, ex-roommates, and ex-girlfriends, many of whom he had met through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings on the island, described his bouts of anger, hostility, and occasional threats of violence towards them and the town of Friday Harbor. However, none testified as to things that Henline said during AA meetings: those who had attended meetings with him were unwilling to divulge anything spoken during the meetings out of respect for the program’s expectation that meetings are confidential, and neither the prosecution nor the defense pressed them to break that confidentiality.

The prosecution also played a recording of a telephone interview that occurred about a week after the fire between Henline and two officers investigating the incident: ATF agent Greg Heller and San Juan County Sheriff’s Office detective Lukas Peter. In that call, Henline denied buying lighter fuel the evening of the fire as well as walking behind any buildings downtown — both directly contradicted by the video evidence collected by investigators.

According to a public information officer for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle, prosecutors have requested a new trial. That has been scheduled tentatively to begin on January 22, though the date may change as they work to accommodate the schedules of the attorneys and potential witnesses. In addition, Henline’s attorneys have asked the court to revisit his ongoing detention given that he has already been held for over eighteen months, arguing that the results of the first trial suggest that the prosecution’s case is “weak.” A hearing on that motion is scheduled for December 11.