Jury weighs life or death for convicted arsonist behind deadly Old Fire

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Jury deliberations resume Tuesday in the penalty phase of the trial for the man convicted of setting the deadly 2003 Old Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Jurors must decide if 30-year-old Rickie Lee Fowler should get the death penalty.

The same jury convicted Fowler last month of multiple counts of murder. San Bernardino County prosecutors say five men died of heart failure trying to escape the fast moving wildfire. It burned for more than one week and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Prosecutors say Fowler set the fire on purpose to get revenge on another man. Defense attorneys argued that Fowler did not intend to kill. They say all of the victims had pre-existing health conditions that put them at high risk for sudden death. But prosecutors charged Fowler with murder because the victims died as a result of felony arson. That made him eligible for the death penalty.

"The felony murder doctrine is a pretty controversial doctrine.” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levinson.

“We’ve had arson cases but usually there is more evidence that fire killed the victim," she said. There also have been cases in which a suspect is fleeing from the police "and somebody dies and the question is whether the person who started the whole police chase responsible. Jurors have come back and said ‘yes’ in those cases," Levinson said.

The jurors in the Old Fire case spent only a couple of days deliberating before they found Fowler guilty. After hearing eight more days of character witness testimony in the penalty phase, they must now decide if Rickie Lee Fowler should spend the rest of his life in prison or die by lethal injection.

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