Houman Fakhimi

San Bernardino Arson Convict Given Death Penalty

A man who prosecutors say intentionally set a 2003 San Bernardino County fire that resulted in a thousand homes destroyed and killed five people has been sentenced to death by a jury.

San Bernardino criminal defense lawyer Houman Fakhimi knows that while the structural damage of the fire was unmistakeable, it's questionable whether the five deaths were both intentional and caused directly by the fire. In fact, it was the prosecution's testimony that revealed the five men who died passed away from heart attacks - not burns or smoke inhalation.

It was the prosecutors' contention that the stress of the fire triggered the heart attacks. But consider this: The American Heart Association notes that the annual rate of a first heart-attack for middle-aged people is three per 1,000. For older Americans, the rate is 74 per 1,000. At the time of this fire, there were 80,000 people in the evacuation zone of some 30 communities. It seems entirely plausible that these individuals could have suffered an attack regardless of whether or not there was a fire. To blame this individual for these deaths, it seems, is a stretch.

These are the types of arguments that may arise in arson cases. Arson, as defined in California Penal Code 451 and 452, is the willful, malicious or reckless setting of fire to any forest land, building or property. The penalties for a conviction depend greatly on three factors:

  • The type of property that caught fire;
  • Whether someone was injured or killed;
  • Whether the fire was set intentionally or just recklessly.

Examples of reckless burning might be tossing a cigarette into dry brush or igniting a lighter near highly flammable materials.

If someone dies, as in this case, you could face penalties that are akin to murder charges - ie, life in prison or even the death penalty. Other less serious offenses include misdemeanor reckless arson or reckless burning, for which potential penalties include probation, up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Felony arson can carry a sentence of up to 9 years in prison (assuming no one died). Even attempted arson can carry a sentence of up to 3 years in prison.

No matter what level of arson charge you are facing, securing the services of an experienced criminal defense lawyer is critical.

Some potential legal defenses that can be employed in these situations might include asserting the fire was an accident, that there is insufficient evidence to prove that the fire was indeed arson, that the accusation is false or someone else may have set the fire.

In this case, there were actually two suspects initially. Witnesses had told police they saw two identifiable men tossing a flame-covered object into Waterman Canyon. Police questioned both men shortly thereafter, but didn't have enough evidence to arrest either one.

Three years later, one of those suspects was shot and killed.

Two years after that, the other suspect reportedly admitted to investigators that he was trying to burn down the home of his godfather, who had recently asked him to leave his home - but he denied being the one to actually start the fire, saying the other man was the one who actually took the flare and threw it.

It was this statement upon which prosecutors essentially based their entire case. Without him having spoken to officials, they would have had nothing if anything to go on. This underscores why it is so critical that you never, under any circumstances - even years later - speak to authorities without a defense attorney present.