Sioux Falls woman fights arson conviction
Justices will decide whether to overturn the conviction but noted that doing so would send the same set of facts back to the same judge who found Krouse guilty.
A Sioux Falls woman found guilty of setting her house on fire for insurance money is appealing her conviction. Her attorney told the South Dakota Supreme Court this week that the arson conviction requires a finding of specific intent, but intent was never proven at trial.
Jacqueline Krouse was convicted in 2021 of committing arson with the intent to defraud her insurance carrier. She had opted for a bench trial before a judge rather than a jury.
The state was represented at oral arguments by Assistant Attorney General Stephen Gemar. He described the state’s strongest evidence, security footage uncovered by a private investigator hired by State Farm. The video shows Krouse going into the mechanical room in her basement, where the fire originated, holding something that could be a matchbox.
Gemar said what happens next is damning.
“Smoke begins filtering out of the mechanical room, which is visible on the video,” he said. “Defendant then exits the mechanical room and turns around and for 20 seconds, stares back into the mechanical room, the smoke still rolling out over her head.”
Gemar noted that Krouse’s house, valued at $1 million, was going up for sale and had some conditions that needed repair, giving her motive for starting the fire.
But defense lawyer Shawn Nichols told justices that the video could have shown Krouse finding a fire that started by spontaneous combustion in a pile of painting rags. He said Krouse gets $21,000 a month in alimony and didn’t need the money. And he noted that Krouse was extremely distraught because her two cats, Tony and Pepper, died in the fire, and that family photos were destroyed.
Nichols said these facts rebut specific intent, a necessary element of the crime.
“Although this court has frequently noted a reluctance to disturb the finding of a lower court, as a matter of fact, when it comes to specific intent, this court has repeatedly held that that means something,” he said.