SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) – A decade after a raging fire swept through Southern California’s San Bernardino foothills, an arsonist was sentenced to death for causing the deaths of five men who died of heart attacks.
It was an unusual legal interpretation of murder likely to be debated in appellate courts.
A lawyer for Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, suggested in arguments Monday that he could not have foreseen that anyone would die and said there was lingering doubt about whether he threw a road flare that was believed to have started the blaze. A second man was seen with him that night.
Superior Court Judge Michael Smith imposed the punishment recommended by a jury in spite of the fact that the victims did not die by Fowler’s hand. They died of heart attacks allegedly brought on by the stress of evacuating their homes as flames raged.
Smith had the option of reducing Fowler’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He declined.
“Today, after nearly ten years, justice has now been secured for the victims and their families, and those whose lives were affected by the actions of Rickie Lee Fowler,” said District Attorney Michael Ramos.
Fowler was convicted in August of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson.
Prosecutors said Fowler lit the fire in 2003 out of rage after he was thrown out of a house where his family was staying.
The blaze scorched more than 142 square miles in October 2003 and destroyed 1,000 buildings as it burned for nine days in the foothills above San Bernardino. The men died after their homes burned or as they tried to evacuate.
Fowler became a suspect after witnesses reported seeing a passenger in a white van tossing burning objects into dry brush. Investigators interviewed Fowler several months after the fire but didn’t have enough evidence to file charges until six years later.
Some legal experts previously said the jury’s death recommendation for a crime tangential to the arson appeared to be unprecedented. Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman said a key consideration was whether it was foreseeable to Fowler that five men would die of heart attacks when he set the fire.
He cited a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision reversing the death sentence of a man charged with aiding and abetting a murder. The court held that the sentence should not apply to someone who didn’t kill, attempt or intend to kill the victim.
Smith said the evidence shows Fowler personally and intentionally started the blaze.
Fowler, who had a long criminal record, was back in prison for burglary by the time authorities charged him with setting the blaze, one of many fires that raged simultaneously throughout Southern California in 2003.
He also was convicted of serial sodomy of an inmate and sentenced to three terms of 25 years to life while in prison awaiting trial.
Prosecutors at the arson trial portrayed Fowler as a sadistic felon who raped, robbed and tortured people throughout his life.
Defense attorneys said Fowler never acknowledged starting the fire and suffered a horrific childhood with methamphetamine-addicted parents and a neighbor who molested him.
Prosecutors said Fowler gave authorities a note in 2008 acknowledging he was there when the fire began. The following year, he told reporters he had been badgered into making a confession.
Defense attorney Don Jordan said before sentencing that there was doubt about whether Fowler was responsible for the blaze, and his client didn’t know where or when it started.
“For all these reasons, please don’t impose the death penalty on this poor creature before you,” Jordan told the judge.
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