Closing Statements for Defendant Charged with Arson

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By Danielle Eden C. Silva

Department 13 concluded a two-day trial on the charges of arson in a forested area, unlawfully setting a fire, and possession of narcotic paraphernalia. Last July, three separate fires had been lit adjacently in Woodland, joining together into a larger fire near a neighbor. The fire investigator concluded the fire was man-made. Jose Cruz Magana had been near the scene and would be arrested soon after.

The testimony of Officer David Shepard of the Woodland PD continued from the morning session. The prosecution presented a video from his car camera where he went to talk to another witness off camera. The jury received a transcript to assist them, as much of the conversation was indistinguishable without assistance. During the conversation in the witness’s driveway, the officer noted he could hear the sound from the police channel in the man’s garage. The witness shared he saw someone moving away from the fire. This person matched the description the witness heard on the police scanner.

Officer Shepard was then excused and the jury was dismissed for a short break, as the Honorable Paul K. Richardson spoke to the attorneys. Deputy DA Daniele Schlehofer shared that the People would rest. Deputy Public Defender Dave Muller informed the court that Mr. Magana would not be testifying and the defense would also rest.

The jury was called back in and Judge Richardson read them the jury instructions.

He noted the elements required to prove the defendant guilty on each count. Arson in a forested area requires that the defendant set a fire in a forest land or on private property and the person acted willfully and maliciously. Unlawfully setting a fire requires that the forest land or property had been damaged or destroyed with the fire and the risk of causing a fire was taken, whether unaware of the risk or not. Possession of narcotic paraphernalia, in this case a methamphetamine pipe, was found and the jury must decide whether or not the pipe was possessed by the defendant.

The jury instructions also outlined general intent – intending to commit an action that is prohibited by law, but not intending to break the law.

Ms. Schlehofer began the Prosecution’s closing argument, recalling the event of the three small fires that turned into a 100-foot by 150-foot fire in Woodland. She noted that the butane torch which was found most likely was used to ignite the fire.

The Prosecution recalled the 911 caller who had seen three small fires join together and had kept an eye on the event before calling in. He noted seeing a white male with a blue plaid shirt, baseball hat and light beard, in about his 40’s or 50’s, pointing, laughing and walking away from the scene. That shirt would later be found to have burn marks, which provided circumstantial evidence of his presence and, since he was walking away, the defendant was also considered fleeing from the scene.

Another witness would share that description of an individual walking away from the scene, noting that he had a blue short-sleeve shirt and brown pants with a pant leg rolled up. When Mr. Magana had been approached by a police vehicle, he had attempted to put the pant leg down and put the near-empty butane torch he held away, showing he recognized why he was being approached.

The Prosecution argued Mr. Magana was acting willfully and maliciously. He had lied to the officer in several statements from the video of the conversation presented to the court.

The defendant had mentioned he had not been “over there,” which showed he knew what was going on despite stating he had been in another location and the fire had only been going on for ten minutes. The People noted that the defendant had also set the fire when no cars were in the area and had recklessly walked away from the fire. The officer had also said the defendant didn’t appear to be under the influence of methamphetamine, showing he was aware of his actions.

The fire happened in the middle of July and was likely started by the butane torch held low to the grass with the defendant’s finger on the “on” switch, the Prosecution argued. Fire investigator Captain Walter Scruggs stated that there were no other incendiary devices, or gas, car, power or weather factors which could have caused the fire. For the final count, Officer Shepard identified the signs of use from the methamphetamine pipe.

In the conclusion of her closing argument, Ms. Schlehofer stated that the jury is supposed to follow the law and Mr. Magana was guilty of all counts.

The jury was dismissed for a small break, when the judge noted the defendant had been in a striped uniform and shackles, unusual attire for a jury trial. He stated he would bring this up again to the jury.

Upon their return, Mr. Muller began the closing statement for the defense. He noted the presumption of innocence and that the prosecution, not the defense, is charged with the burden of proof. The case depended on circumstantial evidence, the defense argued. No one saw Mr. Magana set the fire and he was seen on the other side of a building. Mere presence meant he was a witness, not the cause. The same went for Mr. Magana walking away from the fire – it didn’t mean he was fleeing.

The butane torch couldn’t be confirmed as the source of the fire and could have been used for smoking methamphetamine. The defense noted that Mr. Magana did not have burn marks on his shoes or pants, only on his shirt, which could be from the methamphetamine pipe.

Additionally, Officer Shepard had lied to the defendant to get incriminating information and had been short with him, correcting his grammar. Mr. Magana was a transient, which came with many issues including personal security. He had been walking away from the fire, but not in the same direction as the three fires had been lined up.

Mr. Muller argued that the prosecution acted with a presumption of guilt, like law enforcement who had not searched past Mr. Magana. This cognitive bias also came from the witness with the police scanner who was adamant about the light brown khakis on the individual despite the individual having grey pants. From his position, Mr. Muller argued the defendant could not have seen the fire and was acting erratically. The prosecution’s argument was conjecture and insufficient speculation.

In their rebuttal, the People stated that the defense’s argument was speculation, as there was no evidence that Magana used the torch for narcotics. Additionally, the defendant had been the only one near the grass field where the fire started and he had been found ten minutes after the fire started, meaning the torch could have gone cold by then. She again reminded the jury of his statements to the officer as well as his rolling his eyes at the officer. Ms. Schlehofer said the defense’s argument had no reasonable conclusion.

With the end of the Prosecution’s rebuttal, Judge Richardson noted to the jury not to take into account the defendant’s striped uniform and shackles and not to consider why he was dressed that way. A bailiff was then sworn in as the jury was released to deliberate. Deliberation will be expected to continue tomorrow.


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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch puts 8 to 12 interns into the Yolo County House to monitor and report on what happens. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org

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