Courtthrows out sentence for woman who started forest fire
DENVER (AP) An appeals court Thursday threw out a12-year state prison sentence given to a former forestry worker who started thelargest wildfire in Colorado history.
The Colorado Court of Appeals said state Judge Edward Colt gave TerryLynn Barton too harsh a sentence and had at least “the appearance ofprejudice” because smoke from the fire had prompted the judge to leave hisown home for a night.
The court ordered a new sentencing hearing before a new judge for Barton,who admitted setting the June 2002 fire when she burned a letter from herex-husband in a drought-stricken area.
“Thisis a good thing for Terry, a victory for Terry,” said Barton’s attorney,Sharlene Reynolds. The attorney general’s office said it has not decided whetherto appeal.
The ruling does not affect a separate, six-year prison sentence Bartonreceived in federal court after pleading guilty to federal charges for the samefire. She was serving the state and federal terms concurrently.
Barton has also been ordered to pay a total of $42.2 million inrestitution for damages and firefighting costs to state and federal authorities.
The fire blackened 138,000 acres, destroyed 300 buildings and causedproperty damage in excess of $29 million. More than 8,000 people were forced toevacuate their homes.
The appeals court said Colt acted improperly when he gave Barton twicethe normal maximum prison term after finding “extraordinarilyaggravating” circumstances. The judge had cited the catastrophic results ofthe fire and Barton’s own knowledge of fires as a Forest Service employee.
The appeals court said such a finding should have been made by a jury,not the judge. Barton had waived her right to a jury trial, but the appealscourt said that waiver did not cover the decision on aggravating circumstances.
“Any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond theprescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond areasonable doubt,” the appeals court said.
The appeals court also said the judge “injected comments about hispersonal experience” into his findings during the sentencing.
The court said Colt had helped a court clerk evacuateher home and helped serve food to people displaced by the blaze.