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Jury acquits woman of arson at home of longtime boyfriend

Ashley Harmon was acquitted Friday of setting fire to the Guilford Street home of her longtime boyfriend, shortly after learning he fathered a child by another woman last year.

Following a four-day trial before Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk, a jury deliberated about two hours before finding Harmon, 21, of Hazelwood Avenue not guilty of second-degree arson for the fire in her boyfriend's bedroom about 7:15 p.m. Nov. 21.

Harmon, free on bail but since suspended from her secretarial job at Erie County Medical Center because of the criminal case, cried and hugged her attorney, Paul S. Piotrowski, then ran over to her mother and father shortly after the verdict at 3:35 p.m.

Harmon, who had been facing a mandatory prison term of five to 25 years for the arson at 383 Guilford declined to comment as she left the courtroom.

Piotrowski called the acquittal "the most gratifying victory that I have ever obtained as a lawyer." He described his client as a "very good girl with an unblemished record."

Piotrowski attacked eyewitness testimony as "flimsy." Three women who lived across the street from the arson scene on Wednesday identified Harmon as the woman they saw carrying a ladder to the back of the house, then leaving in her car as flames burst out the back window.

Piotrowski pointed out that police and fire investigators failed to obtain critical DNA evidence at the arson scene and never investigated the home of Harmon, who cooperated in the arson probe.

He also questioned the ability of the three to get a clear view of the face of the arsonist, reportedly dressed in dark clothing.

On Friday, Marlyn D. Wells, 22, Harmon's boyfriend, took the stand as a defense witness and said they have had a relationship for three years.

"I love her," he added.

When asked by prosecutors about fathering a child by another woman early last year, Wells just shrugged.

Also testifying Friday was Ceshana Hollingsworth, 28, a friend of Harmon, who said she had borrowed Harmon's car to drive to a relative's party the night of the arson.

During closing arguments, Piotrowski noted that when police officers confronted Harmon at her home hours after the fire, they found her dressed in pajamas and eager to cooperate, without the assistance of an attorney, even after being told she was a suspect.

After the verdict, prosecutors declined to comment.

e-mail: mgryta@buffnews.com

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