Live updates: Fatal fire trial (Video)
By BY DIANNA WRAY - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Jan. 14, 2013 at 12:04 p.m.
Updated Jan. 14, 2013 at 7:15 p.m.
Scroll down to read live updates from today's testimony in the trial.
GOLIAD - On the morning of June 25, 2003, a fire started in a small house on San Patricio Street.
Patricia Leigh Mills was trapped inside it, dying of asphyxiation in a fire that was believed to be an accident.
But, eight years later, the case was re-opened and her husband, Delbert Andrew Mills, 45, was arrested in December 2011, charged with capital murder in his wife's death.
Now, District Judge Stephen Williams is listening to the case to determine if Mills committed the crime.
On Monday, the testimony began.
District Attorney Michael Sheppard began presenting the state's case. Mills trapped his wife in the house by blocking the exits and setting the fire near the front door - the only exit Patricia, a large woman, could get through.
"There was only one way out of that house for Patricia Leigh Mills," Sheppard said in his opening statements.
The state began presenting its case Monday with an array of witnesses.
Mills, who has been jailed since his December 2011 arrest, sat in shackles, dressed in a black and white striped inmate uniform, his body sagging in his chair. He hardly ever raised his eyes from his hands and feet.
Testimony from Patricia Leigh Mills' relatives portrayed a troubled relationship. They married in 1996, and she gave birth to their son, John Michael, later that year.
Her sister's children often visited Patricia, staying as much as a month at a time during the summer.
Niece Jennifer Burdette, 23, testified that once she heard the two fighting and rushed into the living room to get in between them.
Her brother, Justin Burdette, also recounted the times he saw Mills shove his aunt and hit her with open hands and closed fists.
"She would threaten to leave him, and he said the only way she'd leave him would be dead," Justin Burdette said in court.
Jessica Burdette, the oldest niece, was also close to her aunt. She said she witnessed her aunt suffer both mental and physical abuse at the hands of Mills.
In May 2003, about a month before she died, Patricia was visiting Jessica Burdette in Seadrift when she noticed something seemed off with her aunt.
"It was clear, all over her face," Jessica Burdette said.
She pulled Patricia into her bedroom and asked her what was wrong. Patricia told her she'd caught Mills and her friend, Allison Salinas, having sex on their living room couch, Burdette told the court.
Defense Attorney Keith Weiser questioned this statement, noting that she'd said in a previous written statement they were "making out."
"An affair's an affair," Jessica Burdette shot back.
After they had talked that day in May 2003, they went outside and were standing with Mills and Burdette's husband at the time.
"Well, I told your aunt that I would not give her a divorce, that I'd kill her before I gave her a divorce and paid her child support," Burdette testified Mills said.
Sheppard said he expects the evidence will show the defendant wanted to get out of his marriage and his family because he was in love with another woman, Salinas. "He was not going to let her leave him. He was going to gain control of the situation," Sheppard said.
He acknowledged that it is still unclear how the fire started.
Weiser highlighted that point in his opening statement.
"The state still has to show how Mr. Mills started this fire," Weiser pointed out. "It's not like television, where people can start a fire at the drop of a hat."
Dean Shirley, a deputy state fire marshal who investigated the fire scene that morning, ruled the cause of the fire was undetermined. He failed to take samples or sift the debris to be examined now years after the fire occurred. Shirley did find the fire started at the front of the house, he testified Monday.
Sheppard noted that the family used railroad lanterns and Coleman lamps in the evening to save on electricity. During the 2011 investigation, Mills gave a Texas Ranger his a theory about how these lamps might have caused the fire, Sheppard said.
"He pinpoints the origin of the fire. He's exactly right about where the fire started, and I submit to the court the only way he would know is if he started the fire," he said.
Weiser rebutted, saying bluntly that Mills doesn't know enough to start that kind of fire.
"Yet the state is going to have you believe that this man, uneducated, unable to read or write, was brilliant enough to start this fire in such a way that it started after he had left," Weiser said.
Weiser asked each of the Burdettes if they ever contacted law enforcement if they were worried about Patricia's safety. None of them did.
Patricia's brother, Richard Wiley, seemed to wince when Weiser asked him the question.
Wiley said Patricia stayed with Mills because her husband told her that if she left him no other man would have her.
Wiley said he encouraged her to leave, offering to come pick her up, but, he said, he has regretted since her death not pushing her harder to leave.
Weiser also pressed the Burdettes about the presence of smoke alarms in the house. None of them remembered the same number of smoke alarms in the house, but all remembered one in the kitchen.
The smoke alarms were important in the trial. Sheppard noted that neither of the people who were first on the scene of the fire heard smoke alarms.
He noted that when Mildred Ingram tried to grab a water hose to fight the blaze, the hose had been cut into pieces, rendering it useless.
On the morning of the fire, Mills left for work about 6:45 a.m., arriving there at about 7 a.m.
L.N. Garcia was driving along U.S. 59 when he noticed the smoke. He had planned to turn into the Super S grocery store across the street, but the smoke made him turn left.
As he pulled up to 127 S. San Patricio St., he saw a little boy, dressed only in his underwear, burst out from a window in the house.
The boy, 6-year-old John Michael, immediately turned and began trying to get back into the house.
Garcia grabbed the boy and dragged him away from the house. The child struggled, telling Garcia he had to go back to get his mother.
Garcia put the boy down in the middle of a burr patch to stop him from running back to the house and hurried over to the house to see if he could help.
Black smoke was already pouring out the window, and it was too hot to go inside.
Ingram was also heading to the store when she saw the house was on fire. She ran inside the store and told them to call the fire department. Then she drove over to see if she could help. She tried the second entrance, but it was padlocked shut.
Ingram and a couple of others who had stopped to help began beating the lock with a piece of rebar.
Ingram said she thought she could hear someone moaning inside. While the men worked, she stood near a bathroom window trying to talk to the person inside. Then the moaning stopped.
When Mills arrived, Ingram said, someone pointed him out as the husband of the woman who had died in the fire. He climbed out of his truck and leaned against it, she said, without any expression on his face.
"I just feel like if my house had burned up, and my husband and child had been inside, I would have run through the yard. He just leaned up against the front of the truck, was just talking," Ingram said.
Jessica Burdette noted that Mills didn't seem pleased that his son had escaped the fire. Driving to get dinner that night, she remembered, Mills responded to her statement about how sad she was Patricia wouldn't see her son grow up.
"I want to know how in the hell he got out," she recalled him saying. "He said that he had placed Plexiglass on the windows so thick that a grown man couldn't do it."