This community deserves a further explanation, if not an apology, from the Riverside County District Attorney’s office for its handling of the Cranston Fire arson case. The logical result of the “plea bargain” given to this defendant is that a relatively young convicted arsonist will be turned loose in six or eight years to prey upon this mountain area and other fire-prone communities.
The defendant pleaded guilty to two counts of arson and received a sentence of 12 years and four months. It appears that as many as 13 other counts were either dismissed or somehow lost along the way. A sentence of the equivalent of life in prison was, therefore, possible, which would have been appropriate under the circumstances.
The DA’s statement contains a suggestion that a jury would somehow not be able to infer this defendant’s “specific intent” to burn structures.” After hearing all of the evidence of the defendant’s intentional reckless conduct in this case, I suggest no jury would have a problem with finding specific intent. After all, there is a defendant sitting on death row for killing five of our brave firefighters in the Esperanza Fire.
Under the current DA’s theory, how could a jury find first-degree murder when all that the Esperanza defendant did was start a brush fire near Cabazon? Apparently, this question presented no problem for an aggressive prosecutor and 12 reasonable people.
Having practiced law for 38 years, and having served as a federal prosecutor, I understand that plea agreements are part of the criminal process.
There are limits, however. Some cases must be tried and appropriate sentences handed down. In this case, there was a dereliction of duty on the part of the prosecution. As a judge once said to me after a particularly favorable agreement was reached, “Mr. Steele, who’s going to pay the gift tax?” In this case, I hope it’s not us.
J. Kent Steele