- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - A murder conviction for a man accused of burning his friend to death in a mobile home fire was overturned Thursday when Kentucky’s highest court said prosecutors committed gender discrimination with the jury.

During jury selection, prosecutors explained to the jury pool that their main witness was a woman and signaled they were most worried that female jurors would have been “hard” on its star witness, according to court’s ruling.

As a result, the defendant’s claim of gender discrimination “was presented to him on a silver platter by the commonwealth,” Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. said in writing for a unanimous court.

The prosecution used seven of its nine challenges to remove women from the jury pool in the retrial of Cole Douglas Ross, who was convicted of murder and first-degree arson in the 2009 death of Keith Colston.

“The trial court could reasonably infer a discriminatory intent behind the commonwealth’s challenged strikes,” Minton wrote.

The state’s high court sent the case back to Graves County Circuit Court in far western Kentucky to a trial judge that previously denied Ross’ claims of discrimination.

Ross’ first trial in 2011 ended with a hung jury. After his retrial and conviction, Ross was sentenced to life in prison. Court documents didn’t mention a motive.

Ross moved in with Colston and his wife after he lost his job and could no longer afford his own place.

On the day of Colston’s death, Ross ran errands with his former girlfriend, Tonya Simmons, and she then dropped him off at the Colstons’ trailer.

According to Simmons, Ross asked her to buy him beer. When she returned, she noticed the fire and heard Colston screaming for help, the court said.

Ross allegedly pushed Simmons away from the door and assured her he would help Colston.

Simmons said she saw Ross grab two bottles of charcoal lighter fluid from the porch and re-enter the trailer, according to the opinion.

She called 911 to report the fire. The call was made at 1:14 p.m., about 20 minutes after she had purchased the beer. Ross emerged from the trailer, got in his car and left before emergency responders arrived, according to court documents.

Ross told investigators that he had not seen Colston since early that morning and did not find out about the fire until Colston’s wife called him. He said he had run errands and then went on a beer run.

Investigators found that three of the four samples tested positive for “medium petroleum distillates.” Charcoal lighter fluid is an accelerant considered to be such a distillate, according to the ruling.

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