NJ man serving life sentence for ‘broiling’ brother to death gets new trial
TRENTON — A man serving a life sentence will get a new trial after a state appellate court on Friday tossed his conviction in the fiery murder of his brother and attempted murder of his brother’s girlfriend.
Tormu Prall, 44, was found guilty in 2013 by a Mercer County jury of setting the bedroom on fire where his brother, Jon Prall, and girlfriend Kim Meadows were sleeping Sept. 25, 2007.
Prall’s brother was burned on 97 percent of his body and a medical examiner testified at trial that he “basically broiled or baked to death.”
Meadows suffered burns on 39 percent of her body and needed multiple skin graft surgeries.
Although no physical evidence directly linked Prall to the Trenton arson, plenty of other evidence and witnesses did. Prosecutors said Prall was angry that his brother had kicked him out of the home their mother owned in the city.
The three-judge appellate panel, however, ruled that Prall did not receive a fair trial because the judge allowed Prall’s own girlfriend to testify that he had threatened to kill her and set the homes where she lived on fire.
The trial judge also allowed Meadows to repeatedly testify that her dying boyfriend had shouted “My brother! My brother” immediately after the fire. But 12 days later, the judge told the jury to disregard that testimony. The appellate decision says that instruction came too late.
More critical was the testimony of Prall’s own girlfriend, who told the court that she had later found the T-shirt Prall had worn on the night of the fire with dried blood and skin on it.
The girlfriend, however, threw the shirt in the garbage and only brought it to the attention of authorities about five years after the crime, just a few days before the trial.
Prosecutors said the girlfriend threw out the shirt and kept quiet about it because she was afraid of Prall and had her testify about his threats against her in order to prove her fear.
But the appellate panel says that wasn't convincing because two years earlier she had told investigators about Prall’s threats against her but didn't mention the shirt.
The 38-page appellate decision says that allowing evidence or testimony alleging other crimes “carried the very real risk the jury would conclude that because defendant threatened his girlfriend with burning down her houses, he has a propensity to set fires to harm people with whom he is angry, and thus must have set the fire that killed his brother.”
The decision described this as "patently improper use of other bad-act evidence."
“The failure to instruct the jurors that they could use the threats only to evaluate defendant’s girlfriend’s credibility left them free to use the evidence against defendant, as the prosecutor urged, as proof of ‘how [defendant] thinks,’ ‘how he gets revenge on people,’ ‘how he does it. He sets houses on fire.’”
On the appeal Prall was represented by Assistant Deputy Public Defender Stephen W. Kirsch. Deputy Attorney General Jennifer E. Kmieciak represented the state in the appeal.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.