SAN BERNARDINO – A Superior Court judge has ruled that residents from the local mountains and northern portions of San Bernardino and Highland will not be among potential jurors in the upcoming trial for suspected Old Fire arsonist Rickie Lee Fowler.
In discussions Friday in San Bernardino Superior Court over a defense motion to exclude jurors from those areas, Judge Michael A. Smith acknowledged that residents in those areas may be “particularly more sensitive” to fire issues.
Lawyers grappled with the idea during court appearance for Fowler where discussions occurred about how best to exclude residents from the pool of potential jurors who may been evacuated, impacted or even lost a home during the devastating wildfire.
Smith suggested a plan, often used in his courtroom during winter months, to avoid drawing potential jurors from local mountains and the desert because of delays caused by bad weather and long commutes.
Defense lawyers Donald Jordan and Michael Belter agreed to use the plan, while also excluding residents in ZIP codes 92404, 92405 and 92407. Chino and Chino Hills were also added to the list of exclusions because of long commutes.
“Mr. Belter and I are agreeable to the court following its normal procedure,” Jordan told Smith during the proceedings.
But prosecutors didn’t like the idea of excluding so much of the county for such a significant case, and they suggested the court could ferret out possible jurors who were impacted by the Old Fire fire through a questionaire.
“We want a representative cross-section of the county,” Deputy District Attorney Robert Bulloch told the court.
Further complicating the issue, lots of residents have likely moved out of, or into, the fire affected areas over the eight years since the blaze, prosecutors argued.
Bulloch estimated two-thirds of the county was being left out as possible jurors on a countywide capital case.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” Bulloch said afterward, outside the courtroom.
In other news from Fowler’s case, defense lawyers have also filed motions in Superior Court to recuse the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting the case, in favor of the state Attorney General’s Office.
Another 170-page defense motion seeks to have the charges against Fowler dismissed. The motion alleges prosecutors failed to present exculpatory evidence – which tends to show a person should not be indicted – to a criminal Grand Jury assembled in August 2009 to hear witness testimony about the wildfire.
Both motions are scheduled to be addressed Oct. 31 before Judge Duke Rouse. The trial is set to begin Jan. 9 with jury selection starting the next day.
The Old Fire ignited on Oct. 25, 2003, near Old Waterman Canyon Road above San Bernardino and burned for nine days, blackening more than 91,000 acres, burning nearly 1,000 homes and causing $170 million in property losses, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Fire investigators determined the fire was caused by a flare thrown into the brush. Fowler was indicted by the Grand Jury in October 2009.
Fowler, now 30, faces five counts of murder and special circumstances, which allow for prosecutors to pursue the death penalty if he is convicted. The five counts of murder are for people who died from heart attacks that prosecutors say were brought on by the stress of evacuation and threats to homes and belongings.