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In Arson Cases, a Little Prudence : Dropping of charge shows need for full inquiries, despite public clamor

October 07, 1994

There are some thoughts worth pondering after the dismissal of a charge against an arson suspect in last year's Laguna Beach firestorm. First, authorities must take extra care in such high-interest cases, despite the public appetite for bringing culprits to quick and appropriately severe justice. Second, with its dry climate, Southern California must reckon with vulnerability to wildfires whether caused by Mother Nature or some crazed perpetrator; in either case, we must be well-prepared to respond to sometimes massive emergencies.

The circumstances surrounding the recent arrest--and subsequent retreat by the Orange County district attorney's office--were extraordinary. At a press conference last week Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi announced the filing of a charge against a suspect who had been arrested in connection with three small fires in Fullerton. Authorities said that during interrogation he confessed to starting the catastrophic Laguna blaze, describing in accurate detail where and how the fire was set.

That would seem to be a solid base for the filing of a charge. But this bizarre story was only beginning. Soon the suspect's mother raised an alibi, one that authorities eventually would confirm: The young man had been in a Mexican prison when the Laguna fire occurred.

Law enforcement officials understandably want to bring arson cases to a quick resolution. In the 20-20 vision of hindsight, even some routine checking might have spared the county the embarrassment that came from this case.

There was a similar rush to announce suspicion after the Nov. 2 Malibu fire, although the particulars were quite different. When authorities identified two firefighters as suspects, both were taken off firefighting duty. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office later said it did not have enough evidence to prosecute.

In any criminal investigation, authorities must refrain from reaching conclusions without sufficient inquiry. In instances where entire communities feel victimized, this is especially difficult . . . and especially important.

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