Calling her perjury “the most reprehensible imaginable,” federal prosecutors are asking the maximum of 15 years in federal prison be imposed on the biological mother of arson survivor Safyre Terry.
Federal prosecutors asked for the sentence in papers filed in U.S. District Court ahead of Jennica Duell’s September sentencing.
She admitted in May to three separate counts of perjury related to her evolved testimony to the federal grand jury investigating the 2013 Hulett Street arson fire that killed three of her children, maimed Safyre and killed their father.
Duell’s testimony, prosecutors point out in their filing, played a “very significant part” in the arrest and extended detention of one man on charges he set the fire and the absence of any arson indictment now more than three years after the fire.
The prosecution recommendation includes the maximum five years for each of the three perjury counts to run consecutively. She had faced five counts and a possible maximum of 25 years had she been convicted at trial.
Duell’s final term will be decided at sentencing by Judge Gary L. Sharpe on September 12.
“The defendant’s false testimony concerned a crime that is, quite simply, horrific,” First Assistant U.S. Attorney Grant Jaquith wrote in the prosecution sentencing memorandum. “The Court has a unique opportunity in this case, which has been widely publicized, to emphasize that perjury is a serious offense” that threatens the basis of the legal system.
Duell, 28, has been in custody since her November 2014 perjury arrest. Her attorney Cheryl Coleman is to file her own memorandum, but has asked for an extension until later this week.
After Duell’s plea, Coleman indicated she intended to detail why Duell gave inconsistent statements. “At the end of that,” Coleman said then, “I think people will get a full picture of what happened here and what didn’t happen here, and who to point fingers at, maybe.”
Federal prosecutors initially charged Duell with a single perjury count, but re-indicted her earlier this year on five separate counts. The replacement indictment divided the allegations from a single count of perjury into five.
The three counts to which Duell pleaded guilty comprise the heart of her initial account that bolstered charges against the man arrested for allegedly setting the fire, Robert A. Butler. Prosecutors freed Butler after a second suspect emerged, Edward Leon of St. Johnsville.
Federal prosecutors have since won convictions after trial against Leon on perjury counts related to his own whereabouts the morning of the fire. He received consecutive five-year sentences in March. Leon denies setting the fire.
Prosecutors first indicted Duell and Leon in 2014, more than a year after the May 2, 2013, blaze at 438 Hulett St. that killed David Terry, 32, and his children Layah, 3, Michael, 2, and Donavan Duell, 11 months. Safyre, found by firefighters in her father’s arms, suffered severe injuries and underwent a long recovery that continues.
Safyre, who became the focus of a worldwide Christmas-card project in December, has been in the care of her aunt, Liz Dolder — David Terry’s sister — since returning home from the hospital.
The arson remains unsolved and a reward of up to $40,000 continues to be offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible.
Duell was accused of lying about the nature of her relationships with David Terry and Butler; how she, Butler and others supposedly got from Saratoga Springs to Schenectady the morning of the fire; got gasoline; how the fire started and by whom, and supposed discussion of a cover story.
In the new prosecution filing, Jaquith noted both of Duell’s accounts. He wrote of the original, vivid accounts where she claimed to have been with Butler as she claimed Butler started the fire. Authorities arrested Butler and held him for nine months until Duell recanted and the second suspect emerged.
Jaquith called Duell’s perjury “extensive, deliberate, detailed, and enduring,” saying it “crippled the federal criminal investigation to bring the person or persons responsible to justice.”
“However hard it is to believe that a mother would falsely claim to have been involved in the murder of her children,” Jaquith wrote later in the document, “the Court need not decide whether to credit the defendant’s incriminating or self-serving narrative: regardless of where the truth lies, there is no question that the defendant’s false statements ... were intended to thwart the investigation into the arson and have done so.”