Esperanza Fire: One Trial or Six?

The 5-person crew of Engine 57 from the San Bernardino National Forest was killed while trying to protect a house during the Esperanza Fire in Southern California on October 26, 2006.

From the Press-Enterprise :

“Raymond Lee Oyler, charged with murder and arson in the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters, wants the 45 charges against him divided into six separate trials.“Very weak charges have been joined with particularly strong ones,” Mark R. McDonald, Oyler’s attorney, argues in the motion filed Friday.

The defense attorney claims putting all the charges in one trial, especially when some carry a death penalty, “will substantially prejudice Mr. Oyler in his right to a fair trial.”

The motion, which will be heard March 21, “is not unusual; it’s an effort to sever the capital counts from the non-capital counts,” said Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin. He said he will file a written response with Riverside County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Prevost.

McDonald argues that Oyler should face six separate cases with the charges arranged on the types of evidence gathered from May through October 2006, when 62 fires struck the Banning Pass area.

Oyler is charged with starting 23 of them. He also faces five murder counts and 17 charges of using a device to commit arson.

He was arrested shortly the deadly Esperanza Fire, which began Oct. 26, 2006. Arson investigators said the 43,000-acre blaze was started by a device made of six wooden matches attached to a lit cigarette with a rubber band.

Driven by Santa Ana winds, the fire moved from its 1 a.m. flashpoint near Cabazon up the side of the San Jacinto Mountains. The five firefighters who perished were trapped by flames as they defended a home.

During Oyler’s preliminary hearing last year, investigators described six distinct devices used to set the fires the former Beaumont mechanic is charged with.

“Only two of the fires bear any forensic connection to Mr. Oyler,” McDonald argues. DNA was collected from the remains of cigarettes laid across wooden matchsticks on arson fires set June 9 and 10, 2006, in the Banning Pass area.

McDonald wants the case broken down into cigarettes placed over matches; matches bound by a rubber band to a cigarette (including the Esperanza Fire); “open flame device” fires which investigators declared arson by process of elimination; wooden matches; cigarette-and-paper match devices; and matches affixed to a cigarette with a strip of duct tape.

Oyler, 37, remains in custody without bail. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.”

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