Firestarter: Arson in Arkansas

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If foul play is suspected in a fire, the location should be checked for creepy little girls. 

Little Rock: Hot Enough without Fires, Thank You

I’m currently litigating a case that involves a fire that destroyed an entire house. I have always been someone who enjoys playing with fire, but I can’t say that I actually knew that much about it before this case.

Fun Fire Fact: did you know that a flame is hollow on the inside?

There have been at least two, possibly more, substantial fires at the Forest Place apartments in Little Rock recently. One occurred just last night in the elevator shaft of the south building. You can read the Times blog article here. This is following a massive fire to the complexes north building (article here).

Also recently, ATF investigators have not been able to determine a cause of the fire at a church that destroyed it on May 1, 2013.  

Were these fires arson? 

It doesn’t sound like we will ever know for sure on the church fire. Arson can be tricky to prove. Really tricky. There are obvious evidentiary issues when things are completely burned to the ground. According to a statement given to hawglawblawg by the Little Rock City Attorney, Tom Carpenter, the Little Rock Fire Marshalls “regret the fact that convictions are hard to get.” Obviously, unnecessary fires put the lives of firefighters at risk and must be especially detestable to them. Fighting an accidental fire is one thing, but risking your life because some idiot started a fire must be something different altogether. Which is why arson is a crime. 

Several Forest Place residents believe that the recent fires are the result of arson: 

According to resident Chuck Sanders: “I’m sick of this! It needs to be more of a rumor and they need to find this person or people. I live in the north building and it has GOT to be a relocated resident since the fire started EXACTLY the same – in the dumpster. Someone’s malicious or just plain stupid…either way, I want them caught and justice served. This person is a menace to our community because you DON’T mess with people’s lives and safety this way…it completely sickens me. I’m almost afraid to leave my home unattended. I have pets and it would greatly bereave me to lose them so tragically.”

DISCLAIMER: I have no idea if this is arson or not. It’s not my case and I’m not privy to any evidence collected thus far. But it is a suspicious situation and a great case study in looking at the initial stages of a fire for litigation. 

What is arson in Arkansas? 

Arson is found at 5-38-301 and (in my words) says: 

Arson is when someone starts a fire/causes an explosion with the purpose of destroying or causing damage to someone’s else’s house, someone else’s car, a church, state owned property, or public building. Even if you destroy your own property, you are still on the hook if you did it to collect insurance money or it hurts someone else’s property in the process. And like felony murder, there is felony arson (accidentally start fire during the commission of a felony). 

In a prosecution for, there are two components to corpus delicti: 1) the fact of the loss, or proof that a fire occurred, and 2) the criminal agency of some person, or proof that the fire did not ignite by accident.

Arson can be proven by circumstantial evidence. 

Arson can be capitol murder in some cases and can even be a hate crime (hence the ATF investigation mentioned above). 

There is a deadly force self-defense to prevent someone from committing arson. 

Arsonists: Who Are These Nut Jobs? 

While some people are clearly just in it for the money, people who are serial arsonists are a totally different breed altogether. According to Criminal Wiki, an arsonist may feel compelled due to:

1) Retaliation for “persecution”; often practiced by youths as a means of revenge.

2) To cover up other crimes such as murder, etc. The arsonist believes that burning down the crime scene will “erase” the crime; or

3) Pyromania: a sheer, compulsive need to see the destructive effects of fire. 

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Arkansas Arson Cases

Woodson v. State, 2009 Ark. App. 602- In 2007, Randolph County police determined that a business known as 166 Cafe had been destroyed by arson. The clues? 

  • forced entry by removal of an air conditioning unit
  • point of origin of the fire between a desk and a cash register (which had been pried open with a crowbar) where nothing should have been electrical issue, etc. 
  • intense places of fire charred significantly more than surrounding areas, indicating use of an accelerant
  • One gallon Crown White fuel can found near the building
  • debris tested positive for ethanol
  • corroborating witness testimony

Pretty good sounding evidence. The jury thought so too. This is a great example of an arson used to conceal a crime. 

Wright v. State, 368 Ark. 629 (2007)-defendant’s murder and arson charges were upheld because evidence was sufficient when: 

  • witness responding to fire at victim’s home saw defendant walking away from crime scene
  • reserve deputy who handled bloodhound testified that his select-scent dog tracked defendant’s scent 1.8 miles from road to back door of victim’s mobile home
  • medical evidence gave rise to inference that defendant had sexual relations with victim close to time she died
  • medical evidence showed that victim was dead before fire, and
  • lead investigator on fire ruled out any electrical malfunction as cause of fire

Murder/arson combos seem pretty common. I think the use of a bloodhound is interesting.

Fowler v. State, 99 Ark. App. 283 (2007): Things that AREN’T sufficient proof:

  • Evidence that defendant was in financial distress
  • stored sentimental items off-site
  • distributed food and personal items the evening before her home burned down was insufficient “other proof,” in conjunction with her out-of-court confession, to show that defendant actually carried out the act of burning down her house, as an element of arson 
  • BUT
  • although the evidence showed that defendant intended to burn her house down (out of court confession)
  • fire investigator was unable to independently identify the fire’s point-of-origin or establish that the fire was intentionally set
  • investigator and the electrician who serviced the home were unable to definitively rule out the possibility of electrical malfunction
  • there was no proof that the fire was fueled by an accelerant or other flammable substance.

This case illustrates the extreme importance of being able to rule out any other causes. A confession alone simply isn’t enough. I’m starting to see why convictions are hard to get. 

So there you go, an intro to Arson in Arkansas. Hopefully this will spark an interest in you. OK, I’m going to stop with the terrible fire puns now. 

 

 

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