- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 3, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A woman who plotted to break public water lines so her company could make more money by repairing them had her conviction reversed Tuesday - not because she’s innocent but because state Appeals Court judges said prosecutors messed up at her trial.

In a unanimous ruling Tuesday, a three-judge panel said prosecutors relied on the wrong legal theory to convict Judy Hardison in April 2014 of contaminating the public water system in Pamlico County. The cost of repairing those lines was $80,000, which insurance covered, the Pamlico County manager said Tuesday.

Prosecutors used a theory called “acting in concert” which would have required Hardison to have been “actively or constructively present” - and the appeals court noted that she was not.

“To be sure, the evidence in this record easily would have supported Hardison’s conviction as an accessory before the fact,” the judges wrote. “But the jury was not instructed on that theory of criminal liability, nor was Hardison charged with other related offenses, such as conspiracy, that apply to those who help plan a criminal act.

“Because the state relied entirely on a flawed theory of acting in concert, we must reverse Hardison’s convictions.”

The scheme began in November 2012, when a family friend mistakenly drove a heavy truck over a public water line and then joked with Hardison about “creating a job for her,” the court said. This gave her the idea to pay the man, Rodney Brame, to break the water lines so Triple H Construction Co. could repair them at the county’s expense.

She paid Brame $400 the next week to crack another water line; over the next month, Brame intentionally broke other water lines, the court said. Hardison identified the lines to break and at least once, she or someone working for her placed a flag at one water line.

County Manager Tim Buck said Tuesday that the county turned over the case to law enforcement after officials noticed a high number of water line breaks. When workers inspected the pipes, they found suspicious marks on them, he said.

Hardison wasn’t present when Brame broke the lines, but Brame occasionally called her after he broke a line, the court said.

Even though Hardison planned the crime, that’s not relevant to the acting-in-concert analysis unless she was present when the crime was committed, the court ruled.

Hardison, who was convicted in Craven County Superior Court, was sentenced to at least 10 years in prison, which she’s serving at the state Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh, her attorney said.

Attorney John Carella of the state Appellate Defenders Office said prosecutors can’t charge Hardison now under a new theory of the crime because of the constitutional ban on double jeopardy.

Because the decision was unanimous, the state Supreme Court doesn’t have to take the case on appeal. A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office said prosecutors are reviewing the court’s decision before deciding whether to file for discretionary review.

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Martha Waggoner can be reached at https://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc

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