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Jury: Death for arsonist convicted of 5 murders
Posted 9/28/2012 3:28 PM ET

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) -- A jury recommended death on Friday for an arsonist convicted of murdering five men who died of heart attacks during a wildfire that ripped through Southern California nearly a decade ago.

The murder charges against Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, signaled a tough standard for arson cases in a region plagued by wildfires that sometimes claim the lives of firefighters and civilians.

The recommendation came after jurors in San Bernardino convicted Fowler of killing the men by setting the massive blaze that ravaged the hills east of Los Angeles in 2003.

The Old Fire scorched 91,000 acres and destroyed 1,000 buildings while burning for nine days. The men died after their homes burned or as they tried to evacuate.

A judge will make the final decision on sentencing Fowler at an upcoming hearing.

Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School, said the prosecution of Fowler was similar to bank robbers who have been tried for murder after tellers died of heart attacks.

However, she acknowledged that people might not see a link between setting a wildfire and suffering from a heart attack.

"Usually in arson, people die of smoke inhalation, or being -- God forbid -- burned to death. This is not the ordinary way people die in these situations," she said.

Fowler was convicted in August of arson and five counts of first-degree murder.

Levenson said the prosecution ran little risk in trying to get the death penalty for Fowler because doing so enabled them to cull a more conservative jury pool.

"That helped them get a tougher jury for the guilt phase," she said. "Whether or not he receives the death penalty, this man is still going to die in prison."

Fowler became a suspect in the wildfire after witnesses reported seeing a passenger in a white van tossing burning objects into dry brush. Acting on a phone tip, investigators interviewed Fowler several months after the fire but didn't have enough evidence to file charges until six years later.

Fowler was serving time for burglary when he was charged with starting the wind-blown blaze in the foothills above San Bernardino -- one of many blazes that raged simultaneously throughout Southern California. While in prison awaiting trial, he was convicted of sodomizing an inmate and sentenced to three terms of 25 years to life.

Prosecutors argued at trial that Fowler lit the fire out of rage after he was thrown out of a house where his family was staying. They painted a picture of Fowler as a sadistic felon who raped, robbed and tortured people throughout his life.

Defense attorneys said Fowler never acknowledged starting the fire and suffered a horrific childhood with methamphetamine-addicted parents and a neighbor who molested him.

Prosecutors said Fowler gave authorities a note in 2008 acknowledging he was there when the fire began. The following year, he told reporters he had been badgered into making a confession.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Posted 9/28/2012 3:28 PM ET
A house in the path of the Old Fire goes up in flames in Cedar Glen, Calif., on Oct. 29, 2003.  The Old Fire was one of the most deadliest California wildfires in a decade.
File photo by Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times/AP
A house in the path of the Old Fire goes up in flames in Cedar Glen, Calif., on Oct. 29, 2003. The Old Fire was one of the most deadliest California wildfires in a decade.