IONIA — A Belding woman who has been accused of committing arson in 2010 was back in court Tuesday in an attempt to prove she is indigent and cannot pay for court expenses and her court-appointed attorney.
After testimony from attorneys and two recesses, 8th Judicial Circuit Court Judge David Hoort ruled that Cynthia Stewart-Matzen is not indigent and does not qualify for a court-appointed attorney.
According to court records, Stewart-Matzen was originally arraigned on Dec. 11, 2012. She pleaded not guilty to three counts of arson of a dwelling house, arson, insured property and arson, and preparation to burn. The charges carry a maximum penalty of up to 20 years, 10 years and five years, respectively, plus fines.
The charges were a result of a May 13, 2010, fire at her and her husband’s home on Root Street in Belding.
According to Ionia County Prosecutor Ron Schafer, investigation showed there were three points of origin in the basement, with three separate fires. He said a gas line to the dryer had also been disconnected.
Schafer said Stewart-Matzen had been with her husband Jerry for more than 20 years, but did not marry him until 40 to 50 days before the fire.
Stewart-Matzen, who was originally released on bond while awaiting trial, was sent back to the Ionia County Jail on March 5 after she was arrested for operating while intoxicated, the second of two bond violations. She pleaded no contest to violating her bond by using alcohol. Her first violation led to a conviction in Ionia County 64A District Court, also for operating while intoxicated, after which Judge Raymond Voet ordered a daily test for alcohol.
On March 19, Stewart-Matzen was again in court where her attorney asked the court to grant her a motion for expert witnesses to testify at her trial and for the court to pay for the witnesses because she is indigent. The matter was rescheduled for Tuesday, where Judge Hoort ruled Stewart-Matzen is not indigent.
On Tuesday, Stewart-Matzen’s court-appointed attorney Duff Chadwick put Stewart-Matzen on the witness stand under oath. Hoort then asked her about her assets and compared those answers to what she had said in an affidavit signed on March 20.
When Stewart-Matzen’s answers Tuesday were not the same as those previously provided, Hoort reminded her that the penalty for perjury is five years in prison and that she was under no legal requirement to testify.
Stewart-Matzen said she was answering truthfully, but added she possibly listed some of the assets incorrectly on the form.
“I don’t want her to set herself up for perjury because she falsely filled out the affidavit,” Hoort said.
After a recess, Hoort questioned Chadwick about Stewart-Matzen’s assets.
“We’ve disclosed her assets to the court in the affidavit, that was pursuant to an order of this court,” Chadwick said. “At this point we are questioning whether she should sell her spouse’s car to pay for court expenses. We would simply like the court to make a decision today so we can preserve the issue, based on facts that are already in front of us.”
Hoort read a list of assets from Stewart-Matzen’s affidavit, which included $8,000 in a checking account with Independent Bank, $25,000 in a savings account with Independent Bank, a joint account with her spouse at Chemical Bank worth $8,000 to $9,000, an invested account with in the amount of $65,000, another joint investment account worth $220,000, a diamond ring and a tanzanite ring, equity in real property at 757 Bridge St. in Belding of approximately $41,000.
“It is clear from the self report by the defendant she is not indigent,” Hoort said. “She certainly has assets in her own name that she could use. I suspect that she could also use the joint assets.”
Chadwick objected on Stewart-Matzen’s behalf to using those funds, stating that, “she relied on the finding of indigency” in order to pay for court expenses.
Hoort said he still did not understand the objection, pointing out again that she stated in her affidavit that he had at least $98,000 in assets.
Chadwick then mentioned that Matzen’s husband requires care in a nursing home and that the state-wide average for a nursing home is $8,000 a month.
“Had she known she would have to pay her own attorney fees … she would have made different decisions,” Chadwick said. “We can’t put the sand back in the top part of the hour glass.”
Hoort claimed that Stewart-Matzen may have misrepresented her financial affairs and warned Chadwick that she was on the verge of committing perjury by disputing the claims made in the affidavit. Chadwick then read Stewart-Matzen’s statement from the arraignment on Oct. 16, 2012.
“On that day, did she disclose that she had $98,000 in assets?” Hoort asked.
Chadwick read Stewart-Matzen’s statement from that day, in which she did not disclose $98,000 in assets, stating that having to pay for an attorney would wipe out any saving that she had.
“I don’t know if you want to tell me that she lied at the arraignment,” Hoort said. “You’re also telling the prosecutor that and they can end up now charging her with perjury at the arraignment because of what you just read to me.”
“Threats of perjury won’t intimidate my client,” Chadwick said.
“Maybe you should talk to her first before you make those representations,” Hoort responded.
Hoort then asked Schafer to prepare an order removing Chadwick from his court appointment to the case and to put a hold on Stewart-Matzen’s checking, savings and investment accounts.
“It’s not meant to keep her from doing anything that she needs to do,” Hoort said. “Really all I want to do is preserve the amount that we need to pay your office.”
After another recess, Stewart-Matzen – no longer under representation from Chadwick – spoke to Hoort.
“It’s come to my attention that now because I do not have an attorney, and I have a court date of April 17, I would like to explore my options in regards to an attorney and I would like the court date pushed back,” she said.
Shafer said he did not have an objection to the date being pushed back, stating that the forensics reports needed for the April 17 trail date may not be available.
After an additional recess, Stewart-Matzen returned with attorney Carrie Gallagher from Chadwick’s firm to ask that her April 17 trial date be postponed so she can explore options for an attorney.
“Assuming that we have the report by the beginning of May, we would need until the third week of May to prepare any appropriate motions,” she said. “I think, based on what I have discussed with Miss Matzen, June would be sufficient.”
Hoort then said he would schedule a future trial date in June, in order to give Stewart-Matzen appropriate time to find a new attorney and prepare for the trail.