SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. - An arsonist was sentenced to death on Monday for killing five men who died of heart attacks during a wildfire that ripped through the hills east of Los Angeles a decade ago.
Superior Court Judge Michael Smith had the option of sentencing Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, to the harshest penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"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. A jury later recommended a death sentence for Fowler.
Prosecutors said Fowler lit the fire in 2003 out of rage after he was thrown out of a house where his family was staying.
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.
The Old Fire scorched 91,000 acres (36,827 hectares) in October 2003 and destroyed 1,000 buildings while burning 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.
Fowler was serving time for burglary when he was charged with starting the blaze — one of many fires that raged simultaneously throughout Southern California. He was convicted of sodomizing 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.
Defence attorneys said Fowler never acknowledged starting the fire and suffered a horrific childhood with methamphetamine-addicted parents and a neighbour 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.
Defence 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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