A Pasadena woman accused of setting fire to her SUV — for which she was behind in payments — was sentenced to six months in jail Wednesday.
Around 11:30 p.m. Feb. 24, 2009, Edwina V. Spence's 2003 Chevrolet Blazer was found burning on a dark road in an industrial area of Glen Burnie. The fire was set from inside, barely a half-hour before she reported it stolen to Baltimore police, said Assistant State's Attorney Warren Davis III. Spence was two months behind in payments, and the vehicle was in need of engine work.
Last month, a jury deliberated less than an hour before finding Spence not guilty of arson, but she was convicted of attempted theft and two counts of filing fraudulent information to her insurer. No one else was charged.
Spence has maintained her innocence and is expected to appeal. William H. Cooke, an assistant public defender who represented Spence, declined to comment on the sentence, other than to say, "I appreciate the judge giving her time to finish her education." Spence will not have to report to jail until Dec. 26. She expects to receive an associate's degree in criminal justice this month.
When he asked for an 18-month prison term, Davis told Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Pamela L. North that it would send a message that "especially in this economic climate, you can't just burn your way out of economic problems." Spence also went through a home foreclosure a few years ago.
In addition to the jail term, Spence was sentenced to three years of probation and a 31/2-year suspended prison term. Spence agreed to make restitution of about $2,600.
"This was well-planned, well-thought-out and premeditated. You do not commit insurance fraud by accident," Davis said.
The prosecutor also said that false claims contribute to climbing insurance rates. The Insurance Information Institute estimates that about 10 percent of claim dollars go to fraudulent claims.
According to a newly released National Insurance Crime Bureau report, owner "give-ups" and suspected arson of vehicles were up 21 percent and 13 percent respectively in the first nine months of 2009 from the same period a year earlier.
Spence had been insured by the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, the state's insurer of last resort, Davis said. As long as she meets MAIF criteria and pays whatever money she owes MAIF, she can again be insured by MAIF if she applies, said Adrienne Diaczok, MAIF spokeswoman. The agency's goal is to protect others from uninsured motorists, she said.
Spence's attorney unsuccessfully asked for a sentence of weekend jail time so that Spence could take care of her mother and son, niece and nephew who live with her.
Spence told North that she fell behind in car payments because when her niece and nephew were sent to her from Texas with nothing, "it was more important for me to purchase their clothes and school supplies and get them stable." She told North that jailing her would leave the children, who rely on her, without parental guidance.
"Why didn't you think of that before you set your car on fire or had someone set your car on fire?" North said. She later told Spence that "you really showed a moral void."
Her pastor, Bishop Larry Lee Thomas of Empowering Believers Church in Glen Burnie, said after the sentencing that the jail term would be "a blow" to Spence's family and said he would ask congregants to pull together to help.
Spence maintained that she was at her boyfriend's home in Baltimore on the night the SUV was set on fire, and that her vehicle had been parked there. Davis, however, noted that there were 16 cell phone calls between the two that evening.
Insurance and Fire Marshal's Office investigators concluded that the vehicle's ignition system was not tampered with and the fire was started from inside.