Augusta County Arson Trial Delayed Due to Evidence Issues

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Wednesday, an Augusta County jury was expected to hear the case of a man accused of setting fire to a church.  Instead, a frustrated and apologetic judge had to send the jury home.

A flurry of motions before the trial focused on what the jury would be allowed to hear.  Typically, juries are shielded from any knowledge about a defendant's criminal history.  But in the case of 36-year-old Paul Lenwill Cupp, that history could be key to the prosecution's case.

Cupp arrived at the Augusta County courthouse on Wednesday, fully expecting a jury to decide his fate.  He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of arson, for the October fire at Hildebrand Mennonite Church near Hermitage.  It ignited siding on the outside of the church building, but a passerby put out the flames before they caused major damage.

State police blamed an incendiary device made out of a plastic bottle filled with gasoline, and an oil-soaked rag for a wick.  It resembled ones Cupp used in 2004 to damage a gas station and church in Rockingham County.  He was convicted for those crimes, and back in 1996 for placing a bomb at the Grottoes Post Office.

Prosecutor Rupen Shah wanted to use Cupp's admissions about the 2004 cases, and link them to the Hildebrand fire as a "signature crime."  But after a long pretrial hearing, Judge Victor Ludwig ruled that the cases are somewhat similar, but not striking enough to risk tainting the jury.  The judge may still allow the jury to hear some of Cupp's recorded statements about his fire-setting past. 

Judge Ludwig chastised attorneys on both sides for delaying the case with their last-minute legal wrangling.  A new jury pool will be chosen to hear the trial, which is now set to take up two days in September.