MEDFORD, Ore. – A judge acquitted a homeless man on Friday of all counts in a fire last summer that destroyed 11 homes in Ashland.
Judge Lorenzo Mejia ruled in the non-jury trial that 40-year-old John Thiry in all likelihood started the fire, but the state did not prove he was aware of the damage that would result.
The Mail Tribune newspaper reported that Mejia said Thiry could have been found guilty of criminal negligence, but the state had charged him with reckless endangering and reckless burning.
Mejia said he was persuaded by testimony from police officers who said that when Thiry was questioned the night of the fire, he flicked a burning cigarette within inches of dry grass.
During the trial, the prosecution played a taped police interview with Thiry, in which he denied starting the Aug. 24 fire in a grassy field along Interstate 5 on the south side of town. He said he bought a beer, smoked a cigarette and passed out, waking up to find fire burning around him.
"I looked up and I saw fire, and I tried to put it out, and I couldn't put it out," he said. "It was like in a circle. I tried to stomp it out for like a minute."
He said he found a girl with a cell phone in a nearby parking area and asked her to call the fire department. Confronted by police afterward, he took them to the spot the fire started, and identified beer cans in the area as his own.
Fire Marshal Margueritte Hickman testified that the flames moved at 65 feet per minute on the hot, windy afternoon.
The fire jumped Interstate 5 and quickly moved house to house through the neighborhood built in the 1970s.
Liza Christian, whose home was destroyed, testified she heard a crackling sound that proved to be her back fence igniting, grabbed some clothes and her bike and fled.
Thiry did not take the witness stand, and his defense lawyer rested his case without calling anyone to testify.
Information from: Mail Tribune, http://www.mailtribune.com/
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