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Arson Suspect's Defense Strategy: Quash Evidence : * Trial: The attorney for John L. Orr wants the court to exclude a fingerprint found on an incendiary device and an unpublished novel about arson written by the fire captain.

March 05, 1992|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GLENDALE — As suspected serial arsonist John L. Orr's trial approaches, his defense attorney has moved to quash two key pieces of evidence: Orr's fingerprint, found on a fire-setting device, and an unpublished novel written by the Glendale fire captain.

The attorney, Douglas McCann, said Monday that he also plans to seek an independent psychiatric review to determine whether Orr, Glendale's chief arson investigator, possesses an arsonist's mental and emotional profile. The defense attorney said that a Long Beach psychologist hired by Orr already has found that Orr lacks such traits.

Based on this, McCann said, he will ask that Orr, 42, of Eagle Rock, be released from electronic house arrest. A federal judge ordered this confinement as a condition of Orr's $50,000 bail in December. The arson investigator is still with the department but is not on active duty pending the outcome of the case.

"He's stable and not a danger to the community," McCann said, referring to Orr.

The attorney has been honing his defense strategy in anticipation of his client's trial in U.S. District Court, scheduled for March 17, on five counts of arson and three counts of attempted arson, all involving retail stores in Los Angeles County and in Atascadero in San Luis Obispo County.

Attorneys in the case said this week, however, that because the trial judge, Los Angeles Federal Court Judge Edward Rafeedie, is expected to be out of town, the trial may be postponed until April.

The attorneys have asked Rafeedie to conduct a status conference Friday to discuss the trial date and other issues, including a questionnaire that would ask potential jurors what they have heard about the case and whether they have been influenced by news reports.

Rafeedie is also considering McCann's written motions to exclude the evidence of the fingerprint and the manuscript from the trial. The judge is expected to rule on these motions before the trial begins.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Stefan D. Stein declined to discuss the prosecution's strategy. But last week, he and co-prosecutor Walter F. Brown Jr. filed court papers, arguing vigorously that the two key pieces of evidence should be admitted.

The fingerprint was found Jan. 27, 1987, on a delay incendiary device--consisting of a cigarette, matches, a rubber band and a piece of yellow lined paper--placed among artificial flowers at a CraftMart store in Bakersfield, where an arson fire had just occurred.

The Bakersfield fire was included in a separate five-count federal arson indictment filed against Orr in Fresno in January.

In March, 1987, a federal expert found a fingerprint on the paper. In 1991, the prosecutors said, five print specialists determined that it matched Orr's left ring finger.

In his motion, McCann questioned whether investigators handled and examined the print properly during the past five years. He pointed out that a state Department of Justice expert concluded in 1989 that the print was not Orr's. In addition, he said, the print does not prove Orr assembled or ignited the device.

Orr "may well have left a fingerprint on this yellow lined paper long before its use in the commission of a crime," McCann wrote. "The jury could only speculate as to the exact time John Orr touched this paper."

In their response, Stein and Brown wrote that the state expert "does not know exactly why" he was unable to match the print to Orr's in 1989. But, they said, the same man was able to make a positive match last November.

The prosecutors said the claim that investigators did not handle the print carefully over the years was "frivolous." They also argued that the print linked Orr to a distinctive "signature device" used to start a string of arson fires in Los Angeles County and in Atascadero--the incidents covered by the Los Angeles case.

When Orr was arrested Dec. 4, investigators found cigarettes, matches and rubber bands in the fire captain's briefcase, and a pad of yellow lined paper under the floor mat of his car, the prosecutors said.

In his second motion, McCann argued that Orr's novel, "Points of Origin," which concerns a firefighter who sets fires, is irrelevant to the case and would confuse the jury.

But the prosecutors responded that there are "a number of uncanny similarities" between the fires in Orr's book and the ones he is accused of setting. The book's arsonist and the one who set the real fires both used delay incendiary devices at retail stores in the Los Angeles area and in central California, they said.

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