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Judge Tells Jury of Arsonist That They Must Deliberate Longer

Jurors sent a judge a note today asking what would happen if they can’t agree whether a German national convicted of setting more than 40 fires in the Southland was sane or insane when he committed the crimes, but the judge said the panel had not deliberated long enough to be discussing a possible deadlock.

In a note written this afternoon after about a day of deliberations in the sanity phase of Harry Burkhart’s trial, a juror wrote, “What happens if we cannot reach a unanimous agreement? Everyone has individually reached a decision and it seems like no one is willing to change his or her mind.”

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli — who called jurors back into court — responded that they had “not been out long enough with respect to the voluminous amount of evidence that was presented to you.”

“You’ve been out essentially 4 1/2 hours on this issue. It’s a little premature with respect to the court, you know, inquiring about a deadlocked jury at this point,” the judge said of the six-man, six-woman panel that had gotten the case late Wednesday. “I think further deliberations are necessary.”

The judge told jurors that the court was “ready to assist you” in any way that it can, including the possibility of additional arguments by attorneys. Outside the jury’s presence, defense attorney Steve Schoenfield had objected to the idea of attorneys speaking again to the jury, saying he believed it interfered with the panel’s deliberative process.

Jurors are due back in court Friday morning to continue their deliberations.

Burkhart, 29, was convicted Sept. 1 of 25 counts of arson of property, 18 counts of arson of an inhabited dwelling and two counts each of possession of an incendiary device, attempted arson and arson of a structure.

Most of the blazes were started under vehicles parked in carports or near homes, but one vehicle was set on fire Dec. 30 in the parking lot of a shopping center in Hollywood and another at a complex nearby on New Year’s Eve.

In his closing argument, Burkhart’s attorney told jurors that his client is “profoundly mentally impaired,” “seriously mentally ill” and has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

“I ask you to find him legally insane at the time he committed these arsons,” Schoenfield said, telling the panel that medical records gathered from doctors from as far away as Germany demonstrate “symptoms of mental illness Harry exhibited over many years.”

The defense attorney said the medical records are “proof of a serious mental disease…” He said his client believed his separation from his mother following her arrest in the United States in connection with a criminal case in Germany meant the world was coming to an end.

In his closing argument, Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney said, “Harry Burkhart came like a thief in the night. He came 51 times … He came to burn … He wanted the effect of terrorizing the city.”

Carney told jurors repeatedly that the evidence shows that Burkhart knew what he was doing was legally and morally wrong, and that he had taken “extensive steps to avoid being caught by the police.”

He planned to “inflict fear and fire on Los Angeles” and was “able to start and stop at times of his choosing” after becoming angry that his mother had been arrested, Carney said.

The defense has the burden of proof in the sanity phase of trial, with jurors being asked to determine if there is a preponderance of the evidence — rather than the greater standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt required in the guilt phase of the trial — to show that he was legally insane when he committed the crimes.

Burkhart, who has been listening to the proceedings through a German- language interpreter, has repeatedly objected outside the jury’s presence to how his trial is progressing. The judge has told him on several occasions that he will have the right to appeal his conviction.

Burkhart, who has remained jailed since his arrest, could face nearly 89 years in state prison if jurors find that he was sane at the time of the crimes, or to a state mental hospital if he is found to have been insane.

 

Court judge

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