Man who started campfire charged with two counts of murder
August 29, 2001 11:45 AM   Subscribe

Man who started campfire charged with two counts of murder Got a few questions for any legal scholars in the house. In a nutshell: How does a guy who neglected to put out a fire wind up getting charged with murder when two pilots accidentally crash into each other? The un-nutshelled version inside.
posted by Shadowkeeper (9 comments total)
A question for the legally savvy in da house. Guy gets arrested for allegedly starting the campfire which got out of control and caused the huge wildfire in California. The authorities also found what is believed to be a meth lab nearby, and they are trying to tie the guy to that too. Yesterday, two tankers dousing the flames with retardant collided and both pilots died. Now the suspect is being charged with two counts of murder.

My question: how can they charge a guy for murder for failing to extinguish a campfire? This is Involuntary Manslaughter, right? Is the newspaper reporter just being lazy by calling it "murder"? Or is I.M. (as I like to call it) considered to be murder, in the same way that "heat of passion" killings are considered to be murder?

It seems to me that while both "Murder" and "Manslaughter" are classified as Homicides, you can't (accurately) call one the other. Or does this case of I.M. get upgraded to "Murder" because they are arguing that it occurred during the commission of a felony (i.e. meth production)?

And here's a question for the peanut gallery: should whomever started this wildfire be held accountable for the death of these pilots? (We don't know that it was the guy in the article, remember, so for now you can disregard the suspected meth-lab connection. In fact, for purposes of this philosophical discussion, assume that the wildfire was started by Joe Nobody, just some schmoe who neglected to completely extinguish his campfire when he headed homeward.)
posted by Shadowkeeper at 11:45 AM on August 29, 2001

The heck with legal mumbo jumbo, add this to your David Crosby: Seperated at Birth file. BTW, most press agencies are already reporting the blaze was started by a meth lab fire, not a campfire. Bad journalism or the truth, don't know yet.
posted by machaus at 11:56 AM on August 29, 2001

I am no lawyer so what I say has no weight of knowledge or experience but I believe that if a death takes place during the commisssion of what is considered a crimminal act, the pereson doing the crime can be charged with felony murder. Thus, if I jump into my car and speed away after holding up a store and in trying to get away I run over and kill someone I can be charged for the death.
That this guy was perhaps making meth will not be viewed as lightyly as if he were merely roasting burgers at a camp site.
posted by Postroad at 11:58 AM on August 29, 2001

There are two completely unrelated legal theories at stake here.

The first is what is called "felony murder." Any death which occurs in the course of or as a result of the commission of a felony is murder committed by the felon regardless of his actual role in the death. The classic case of this is robbing someone who has a heart attack because of the stress: felony murder. I actually find it highly unlikely that the fire would be connected to the meth-lab sufficiently to support a felony murder.

The other arises from two concepts. The first is that the death of a firefighter is ALWAYS deemed to be caused by the person who set the fire. If the person who set the fire was acting, intentionally or with gross negligence, with a "wanton disregard for human life," then that rises the level of intent necessary to make out murder of the firefighter, not just manslaughter.

But, of course, the main and most important reason why he was charged with murder was to secure a good plea. Prosecutors always overcharge, which scares the defendent into pleading guilty to two counts of manslaughter (7-10 each) and one count of meth production (5-7) and be happy to get 19 to 27 years, rather than life without the possibility of parole.
posted by MattD at 12:02 PM on August 29, 2001

I am not a lawyer and-God willing-never will be. But I believe the below to be correct. I got it from some online dictionary a long time ago when I was trying to make a distinction among all of these charges.

Manslaughter - murder w/o any premeditation
-Voluntary manslaughter-includes killing in heat of passion or while committing a felony.
-Involuntary manslaughter occurs when a death is caused by a violation of a non-felony, such as reckless driving.

First Degree Murder-killing of a human being by a sane person, with intent, malice aforethought (prior intention to kill the particular victim or anyone who gets in the way) and with no legal excuse or authority. In those clear circumstances, this is first degree murder.

Second degree murder-killing without premeditation, as in the heat of passion or in a sudden quarrel or fight. Malice in second degree murder may be implied from a death due to the reckless lack of concern for the life of others (such as firing a gun into a crowd or bashing someone with any deadly weapon). Depending on the circumstances and state laws, murder in the first or second degree may be chargeable to a person who did not actually kill, but was involved in a crime with a partner who actually did the killing or someone died as the result of the crime.

A charge of murder requires that the victim must die within a year of the attack. Death of an unborn child who is "quick" (fetus is moving) can be murder, provided there was premeditation, malice and no legal authority.
posted by Witold at 12:06 PM on August 29, 2001

Well, just to muddy the waters, I could put a perverse FOXNEWS spin on this one: Gov't bureaucrats hassle entrepreneur over environmental damage. Ah well. One can dream.

As for the murder charge, most likely you are correct. California law may of course differ slightly. First degree murder is actions voluntarily taken that one knows will result in another's death. Second is generally actions taken that might, or actions taken that would result in another's death but that were involuntary (e.g. temporary insanity defense). Voluntary manslaughter might be the most appropriate charge here, since that covers actions taken that one knew could be so dangerous as to result in another's death. That fire didn't start itself, after all; I have no idea what the restrictions are at this location this time of year, but I'd imagine in general they're pretty strict. Anyway I can see a case for voluntary manslaugther upgraded to 2nd based on the commission of a felony.

Of course there's another side to this, and whether or not one agrees that this particular fire was in the end a bad thing, there's a good question as to how we deal with fire in Western lands, where it's a natural part of the ecological cycle. Like flood control with dikes tends to concentrate the waters in a small area (making any breach disastrously bad), fire control just tends to result in higher levels of debris that can burn even better once ignited. Now, the US Forest Service has taken a slightly less aggressive approach to firefighting in recent years. Time was when it was brave men against evil fire and now it's seen more as a forestry management issue, but they're still far from what some would like. Still, with exurban encroachment on natural areas, there's hardly anywhere that's so free from man-made structures they can just let the forest burn. So just like people moving into a bear or cougar habitat and blaming the predator when their dog gets et, people insist on fire protection, and so this problem will never go away.

One final question: will someone tell Zeldman that the new orange is grey?
posted by dhartung at 12:08 PM on August 29, 2001

Billy Connolly - how could you?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:43 PM on August 29, 2001

There was an interview with one of the Mendocino Country prosecutors on NPR's "All Things Considered" this evening. The prosecutor explained that Franklin Brady is being charged with murder due the man's (believed) commitment of a felony (i.e. the meth lab). It sounds like a case of "felony murder" as described by MattD.

The prosecutor mentioned that had this been an ordinary camp fire gone out of control then the starter would not have been charged with murder.

My own feeling is that even if it's shown that Brady was running a meth lab that the murder charge won't stick.
posted by Qubit at 5:29 PM on August 29, 2001

For whatever it's worth, a second man has been charged, and they are indeed claiming felony murder.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:32 AM on August 31, 2001

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