San Bernardino jurors ended their fourth day of deliberations Tuesday without reaching a verdict in the murder trial of the man accused of setting the 2003 Old Fire, but were expected to reconvene on Wednesday in San Bernardino County Superior Court.
Rickie Lee Fowler is on trial on five counts of felony murder, felony arson and aggravated arson. He potentially faces the death penalty if convicted.
Five people died during the Old Fire of what authorities called stress-related heart attacks, but all of the victims also had pre-existing health problems. That creates a potential conundrum for jurors: Can they convict Fowler of murder without the kind of direct physical evidence found in many trials?
Prosecutors say the motivation for the fire was revenge, alleging that Fowler set it to settle a score with an old acquaintance (who survived).
But five other San Bernardino Mountain residents died of heart attacks — brought on, prosecutors claim, by the stress of trying to escape the fast-moving fire.
“The reason the prosecutor would go for murder as opposed to manslaughter is that when you’re talking about felony murder, it doesn’t really matter what the defendant intended,” explains Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.
All of the victims were male, between the ages of 54 and 93, and each of them also had serious pre-existing health conditions — including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and emphysema. Defense attorneys argued that none of the victims had a buildup of soot or other wildfire debris in their lungs at the time of their deaths, something Levenson says could make it tough to convict Fowler.
“Jurors know how serious it is to hold someone responsible for murder," says Levenson. "And they might not feel comfortable unless they have more direct evidence that the fire, as opposed to preconditions, caused the deaths.”
Fowler tried to pin the deadly arson fire on a friend (now deceased) who he claims snatched a lit road flare from his hand and tossed it into some dry brush. That ignited a monstrous 90,000 acre wildfire that raged for over one week and destroyed hundreds of homes.
If convicted of murder, Fowler could get the death penalty.