Sep. 19—Jacob Piper of Fort Atkinson was acquitted of all six charges against him, including arson and five counts of attempted first-degree intentional homicide, after a five-day trial concluded early Saturday morning.
After four hours of deliberation, the 12 jurors filed back into the courtroom at the Rock County Courthouse to have their verdicts of not guilty on each count read.
Piper, 31, was accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail at a duplex on River Street in Janesville in the early-morning hours of May 28, 2020. Five people were in the building at the time of the fire but escaped.
Defense attorney Mark Eisenberg, in his closing argument, railed against the credibility of most of the state's witnesses and discrepancies in their accounts. He also criticized the investigation of the fire as disorganized and incomplete.
Assistant District Dttorney Jerry Urbik set out to prove that Piper was at the scene of the fire when it started. Evidence included phone GPS records putting him at the house at 5:42 a.m., where he stayed for about three minutes before returning to Fort Atkinson at 6:05.
A fire investigator testified at the trial it would have taken six to 10 minutes for the porch to burn down. Based on that and a video of the fire taken by a neighbor showing the duplex burning, the defense argued Piper could not have been near the duplex when the porch ignited.
Witnesses Jennifer Moffett and Donald Shannon testified they were inside the duplex and Piper was outside it the morning of the fire. Moffett said she heard someone at the front porch and when she looked to see who it was, she said she saw Piper was holding a bottle with some sort of flame coming out of it. Moffett said Piper threw the bottle, causing the duplex to catch fire.
She and Shannon said Piper had been rejected by a female resident he had pursued romantically before the incident.
At trial, discrepancies came to light over how Moffett, Shannon and Moffet's daughter said they escaped the building. Shannon, who was barefoot at the time, had also managed to not injure his feet despite saying he had jumped through the fire.
Members of the Janesville police and fire departments testified to a smell of "ignitable" fluid emitting from the debris on the scene. A gas nozzle was found in Piper's vehicle but not accompanied by a gas can.
Urbik asked the jury to consider photos of red marks on Piper's neck and forehead and what appeared to be singed whiskers on the right side of his face. An expert witness for the state suggested the blemishes were consistent with exposure to extreme heat.
But Eisenberg said the state's case was "based on speculation." He said there was no concrete evidence that a Molotov cocktail had started the fire.
After the verdict, Eisenberg said he was pleased with the jury's decision. He said the prosecution had relied too much on the witnesses whose statements were inconsistent. The physical evidence did not support the state's case against Piper, he said.
The prosecution, Eisenber said, "looked at this with tunnel vision. They looked at those two witnesses, (thought Piper) lied to the police and that he was there (at the scene) and thought 'Oh, we got him.'"