SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — An arsonist was given the death penalty Monday for killing five men who died of heart attacks during a wildfire nearly a decade ago that ripped through the hills east of Los Angeles.
Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, was convicted in August of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson. A jury later recommended the death sentence.
Prosecutors said Fowler lit the fire in October 2003 out of rage after he was thrown out of a house where his family was staying.
"Today, after nearly 10 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," San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos said.
Superior Court Judge Michael Smith had the option of sentencing Fowler to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"The behavior of this particular defendant screams out death penalty," Deputy District Attorney Robert Bulloch said.
Defense 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.
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 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 also was convicted of sodomizing an inmate and sentenced to three terms of 25 years to life while in prison awaiting trial in the arson case.
At trial, prosecutors portrayed Fowler as a sadistic felon who raped, robbed and tortured people throughout his life.
Defense attorneys said Fowler never acknowledged starting the fire and suffered a horrific childhood with methamphetamine-addicted parents and a neighbor 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.
Earlier on HuffPost:
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"I Am Not Guilty - Thus Lizzie Borden Pleads Before Judge Hammond at New Bedford." -Boston Journal
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"Murder of a Little Beauty" -People Magazine
With a face that graced the covers of nearly every news and gossip rag during the winter of '96, it's hard to suggest the death of child beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey had little effect outside the city of Boulder, Colorado. Found dead from a blow to the head and strangulation in the family's basement, coupled with a ransom note left on the staircase asking for $118,000 (conveniently or coincidentally, nearly the same amount Mr. Ramsey received as a bonus that year), as well as no obvious signs of forced entry into the house, the evidence was overwhelmingly stacked against parents John and Patsy, who managed to maintain their innocence throughout the investigation. The case reopened in 2010, but critics cite poor handling of the crime scene as obstructing what remains a mystery regarding the events of that Christmas day.
"F.B.I. Joins Probe in Slaughter of 8 Nurses" -Nashua Telegraph
Tattooed with "Born to Raise Hell" on his arm, Richard Speck made good on his mantra through a history of violence, theft, alcoholism, and spousal abuse, but made his infamy known to all when, on July 13, 1966, he walked into a dormitory armed with a knife. After leaving 8 student nurses dead in his wake, only one, Cora Amurao, was spared--hiding under a bed until 6 a.m. Speck was found guilty of murder and died of a heart attack in prison. As one of the most press-worthy crimes of the decade, the grim events were used most recently as the backdrop for an episode of <em>Mad Men</em>.
"Sharon Tate, Four Others Murdered" -Los Angeles Times
Perhaps the most terrifying figure in American crime to have never actually killed anyone himself, Charles Manson founded a "family" of wayward individuals who hailed him as a prophet. So strong was his manipulation, he ordered, on the night of Aug. 8, 1969, four of his followers to kill everyone at the residence of 10050 Cielo Drive--including Roman Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, and her unborn child. Tate was stabbed 16 times, and her blood was used to write "pig" on the house's front door. The next night, Manson accompanied six of his family to the residence of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, only to help bind them before ordering their deaths. In 1971, Manson and three of his fellow defendants were found guilty of murder in the first-degree and several other crimes. At the time, it was the longest murder trial in American history, spanning nine and a half months, as well as the most expensive, estimating $1 million. Manson was denied parole for the 12th time in April 2012.
"Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped from Home of Parents on Farm Near Princeton; Taken from His Crib; Wide Search on" -The New York Times
Used as the basis for an Agatha Christie novel (<em>Murder on the Orient Express</em>) and dubbed "the biggest story since the Resurrection" by famed journalist H.L. Mencken, the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh's infant son continues to fascinate theorists today. Charles Jr. was discovered missing from his second-floor bedroom on March 1, 1932, along with a note demanding a then-unimaginable $50,000, igniting a media frenzy like no other. The tabloid pandemonium prompted many tips and leads, but none as concrete as a package containing the boy's pajamas and another message demanding the ransom. After some misdirection from the presumed kidnapper, Lindbergh's child was soon after discovered in the woods along a road near the family residence. Notwithstanding the evidence stockpiled against the easily vilified illegal German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann (who was sentenced), speculation prevails as to the true identity of the caper responsible in this tragic tale of one of America's greatest heroes.
"Not Guilty as Sin" -NY Post
Still fresh in the minds of many and not to easily be forgotten, the trial of Casey Anthony turned Orlando, Florida into anything but the "happiest place on earth." Following a series of lies, misdirection and manipulation by then-22 year old Casey, Caylee's skeletal remains were found five months into the investigation, setting the stage for what could only be described as the most incessantly publicized and shocking trial in recent memory. The media had a field day that went on for months: Highlighting the young, pretty, party girl image used against her in court as the prosecution tore apart an aimless defense--or so it seemed. After resorting to throwing her family under the bus, incriminating people entirely made-up ("Zanny the Nanny"), and fabricating elaborate stories for the police, Casey was found not guilty of murder due to evidence deemed mostly circumstantial and not meeting the burden of "beyond reasonable doubt," inciting much debate regarding whether true justice was served.
"An American Tragedy" -TIME
Known and heralded as the "trial of the century," former football star and actor O.J. Simpson found himself in the middle of the nation's biggest, most-televised trial following the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, but not before fleeing an all-points bulletin in his Ford Bronco with 20 units in tow, interrupting game 5 of the NBA Finals. By enlisting a dream team including Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, and Robert Kardashian, the defense claimed Simpson was merely a victim of police fraud with regard to contaminated DNA evidence, while famously quipping "If it [the glove] doesn't fit, you must acquit." On October 3, 1995, an estimated 100 million people from around the world tuned in to watch the jury hand down a verdict of not guilty, consequently resulting in an estimated loss of $480 million in productivity and inciting an ongoing discussion of race in the judicial system that continues to this day.