Jan. 29, 2013 Associated Press
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) — A decade after a raging fire swept through Southern California's San Bernardino foothills, an arsonist was sentenced to death for causing the deaths of five men who died of heart attacks.
It was an unusual legal interpretation of murder likely to be debated in appellate courts.
A lawyer for Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, suggested in arguments Monday that he could not have foreseen that anyone would die and said there was lingering doubt about whether he threw a road flare that was believed to have started the blaze. A second man was seen with him that night.
Superior Court Judge Michael Smith imposed the punishment recommended by a jury in spite of the fact that the victims did not die by Fowler's hand. They died of heart attacks allegedly brought on by the stress of evacuating their homes as flames raged.
Smith had the option of reducing Fowler's sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He declined.
"Today, after nearly ten 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," said District Attorney Michael Ramos.
Fowler was convicted in August of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson.
Prosecutors said Fowler lit the fire in 2003 out of rage after he was thrown out of a house where his family was staying.
The blaze scorched more than 142 square miles in October 2003 and destroyed 1,000 buildings as it burned for nine days in the foothills above San Bernardino. The men died after their homes burned or as they tried to evacuate.