A Carroll County Circuit Court Judge on Friday found a Hampstead man not guilty of all charges related to the death of his wife in a November 2016 fire.
Robert C. Schech Sr. had been accused of intentionally setting fire to his home at 2611 Hoffman Mill Road while his wife, 55-year-old Donna Marie Schech, was inside, killing her. Four weeks after his trial ended May 11, Judge Thomas Stansfield announced he found Schech not guilty of all charges shortly after 3 p.m. Friday.
"We've always known that he's innocent. We've known it without a doubt," his son, Robert Schech Jr., said while speaking outside the historic courthouse following the verdict. "I can't describe how it felt to not be able to prove it to everyone."
Schech Sr. was expected to be released later Friday once processed through the Carroll County Detention Center after spending 539 days incarcerated following his arrest on Dec. 16, 2016.
His daughter, Mindy Schech, said the long process was difficult.
"For no one to believe you … but you know it so strongly that he was innocent the whole time," she said.
As he left the courthouse Friday, following the verdict, Robert Schech was still in the custody of corrections officers, but he waved to his son as he entered a transport van that would take him back to the detention center.
Prosecutors sought conviction on charges of first-degree murder, first-degree arson and first-degree felony murder, a charge that can be sought when a death occurs in the commission of a felony. In this case, the death that occurred in the commission of the alleged arson. The trial was conducted as a bench trial, meaning there was no jury and Stansfield was the case's sole fact-finder.
In handing down his ruling, Stansfield said the case came down to whether it could be proven the fire was intentionally set.
Though he said there was "a strong suspicion that the defendant is guilty," Stansfield found that was "guesswork, suspicion and conjecture — not making a finding based on evidence."
Seats in the courtroom were divided between the family of Robert Schech and Donna Schech. Law enforcement and members of the Carroll County State's Attorney's Office also attended.
The defense argued that "ample" reasonable doubt existed in the case and there was not sufficient physical evidence from the fire scene or evidence of motive from Robert Schech's life to continue with the charges. An expert witness brought in by the defense challenged the investigator's findings and concluded that the fire was accidental.
Prosecutors had said Robert Schech set the fire intentionally using gasoline as an accelerant to cover up evidence of wrongdoing that night. The investigation conducted by the Carroll County Sheriff's Office and the Office of the State Fire Marshal reported that the fire originated in two areas of the home.
Stansfield added that when judges are trained, they learn that there will be cases that are "going to God and He has to straighten it out later."
Robert Schech Jr. and Mindy Schech thanked defense expert witness Craig Beyler and defense attorney Joseph Murtha for their work on the case.
"I was praying because the trial was about to start in August and I felt like there was no expert to support us," Schech Jr. said. "I knew that God answers prayers because Dr. Beyler just came out of nowhere."
Murtha was "very grateful and relieved" upon hearing the verdict.
"It was a complicated, involved case. It was a difficult decision and I'm grateful Judge Stansfield took the time to sort through [the evidence]," he said Friday evening.
Murtha said he has become close to Robert Schech Sr. during the course of preparing for the trial and expects the man will feel "a great sense of relief."
Chief Deputy State's Attorney Jason League said prosecutors were obviously disappointed by the verdict and had hoped to be able to prove their case even without testimony from Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Sander Cohen, who was the Office of the State Fire Marshal's lead investigator in the case and was killed in a vehicle accident on Dec. 8, 2017.
"We respect [Stansfield's] decision," League said.
The state argued during trial that the fire was intentionally set in two areas that blocked the exits from the first floor and basement of the home. Blunt force trauma to Donna Schech's head and the positioning of her body were circumstantial evidence, it argued. Expert witnesses called by the state testified that Robert Schech's injuries from the fire were consistent with flash burns obtained by igniting gasoline.
Schech took the stand in his own defense during the trial and said the charges were "ridiculous." He tried to find ways to put out the fire on that night, but when, after he had exited the home, he could not get back into it because the heat was too strong, he did everything in his power to reach a phone and call 911, according to his testimony. The state said Schech's statements contained lies and his recollection of the night of the fire did not make logical sense.
Schech's children felt the defense's case was strong, but said they were tense awaiting the verdict.
"It could've went the other way just because ... a jury or a different judge got it wrong," Schech Jr. said. "It makes us realize that there are probably a lot of people out there that are innocent and incarcerated."
Added Mindy Schech: "It makes me think of every case differently."