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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rickie Lee Fowler: Rare Death Sentence in Felony-Murder Arson

     Sexually abused as a child, and addicted to methamphetamine, Rickie Lee Fowler lived a life of violence and crime. On October 25, 2003, while riding in a van driven by David Valdez, Jr., Fowler tossed burning road flares out of the moving vehicle. The 22-year-old, angry because he and his family had been evicted from their home, wanted to start fires.

     During the next nine days, the twelve wildfires that swept southern California's San Bernardino foothills scorched 442 square miles of land, and burned 1,000 homes to the ground. Five people died of heart attacks while evacuating their fire-threatened dwellings.

     In 2004, after being interviewed as a possible arson suspect, Fowler was sent to prison on a burglary conviction. Two years later, David Valdez, Jr., the driver of the van, was shot to death.

     Fowler, while serving time on the burglary case, was convicted of repeatedly sodomizing an inmate. The judge in that case sentenced him to three terms of 25 years to life.

     In 2009, after Fowler confessed to starting the October 2003 wildfires, grand jurors in San Bernardino indicted him on one count of aggravated arson and five counts of murder. The homicide indictments were based on the felony-murder doctrine. Fowler, because he had committed a felony that directly led to the killing of five people, was criminally responsible for their deaths. While Fowler had only intended to commit arson, he should have foreseen the deadly consequences of his criminal acts. In most states, convictions based on the felony-murder rule bring sentences of twenty years to life. No one convicted of an unintended homicide has ever been sentenced to death.

     In August 2010, when Fowler learned that the prosecutor was seeking the death penalty in his case, he took back his confession. Two years later, a jury in San Bernardino found Rickie Fowler guilty of  arson and the five counts of murder. The jurors also recommended the death penalty.

     On January 28, 2013, the judge sentenced Fowler to death. This unprecedented sentence makes this felony-murder case historic. Fowler's attorneys have appealed his death sentence as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment. Because the felony in question involved intentionally causing a catastrophe, I believe this sentence will be upheld on appeal. 

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