Still no sentence in Old Fire arson murder trial

Wildfires Arson Murder

Kevork Djansezian/AP

This Oct. 30, 2003 file photo shows a view from a burned out home showing a pine tree forest and homes which were consumed by the Old Fire as it roared through the community of Cedar Glen in Lake Arrowhead, Calif. Jurors convicted Rickie Fowler of murder and arson, but have gone two weeks without a decision on whether he should be sentenced to death for five heart attack deaths during the fire.

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Photo: San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office

Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, was convicted last month of arson and murder in the 2003 Old Fire. But jurors have now gone two weeks without a decision on whether he should be sentenced to death.


Last month, a jury in San Bernardino deliberated quickly before convicting Rickie Lee Fowler of arson and murder for touching off the deadly 90,000-acre Old Fire in 2003.

But after two weeks of talking about what sentence he deserves, the same jury still hasn't decided whether the San Bernardino man should get life in prison or the death penalty.

Part of the delay could be the difficulty of deciding whether Fowler, 31, deserves capital punishment when the five deaths in the Old Fire weren't the result of burn injuries.

Five men died of stress-related heart attacks as the Old Fire ravaged the San Bernardino Mountains. It burned from the northern border of San Bernardino to the mountaintop resort town of Lake Arrowhead. The flames destroyed more than 1,000 homes and other structures over nine days.

During the trial, a medical examiner with the San Bernardino County Coroner's office testified that he believed the Old Fire triggered the five fatal heart attacks. But defense attorneys argued that the victims, whose ages ranged from 54 to 93, had pre-existing health conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and emphysema which put them at high risk for sudden death.

They also argued that Fowler did not intend to kill anyone.

But San Bernardino County prosecutors said Fowler intentionally set the fire, possibly in retaliation over a dispute with another man. They argued that felony arson makes the five deaths murder, which makes him eligible for the death penalty.

Deliberations in the penalty phase of Fowler's trial have been slowed by schedule conflicts, reviews of court transcripts and juror questions for the judge and the attorneys. That communication is sealed.

Court records show that on Tuesday, jurors convened around 9:30 in the morning. A half-hour later, they took a 20-minute break. They broke for lunch at 11:30 a.m., returned in the afternoon to talk for about 90 minutes, and then went home for the day.

If the jury deadlocks on a sentence recommendation and the judge declares a mistrial in the penalty phase, the murder conviction will stick. But prosecutors would have the option of retrying Fowler in the penalty phase, and with twelve new jurors in the jury box.

Deliberations resume Tuesday.

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