USA — For weeks, jurors in the capital trial for Esperanza Fire arsonist Raymond Lee Oyler have been listening to testimony about the Beaumont man who started the blaze that killed five firefighters.
Those 12 men and women will now make one of the biggest decisions of the trial: Whether Oyler should die for his actions or spend the rest of his life in state prison.
Lawyers in the Oyler case wrapped up their closing arguments for the penalty phase of the trial Tuesday in Riverside Superior Court, sending the case to the jury for deliberation.
Prosecutors portrayed the defendant as a cold and calculating individual who watched, with interest, as the Esperanza Fire scorched hillsides, consumed homes and brought fear to many communities.
Michael Hestrin, the deputy district attorney who has prosecuted the case, asked jurors not to shy away from the weighty decision and tried to stave off any sympathy for Oyler.
Hestrin humanized the five U.S. Forest Service firefighters who died in the fire by speaking about their families, their mothers and by showing photographic glimpses of their lives on video monitors around the courtroom.
“When it comes down to it, you’re going to have to weigh any sympathy for Raymond Oyler against what he did,” Hestrin told the jury. He questioned whether Oyler should be given the gift of living out the rest of his life.
One of Oyler’s two lawyers, Thomas Eckhardt, told jurors there was no question that Oyler was responsible for a series of fires during the summer of 2006, culminating in Esperanza. The tragedy, the loss, is huge, he said.
But the lawyer reminded jurors to look at what the law requires and what was necessary. He questioned whether spending the rest of one’s life in prison, without the possibility of parole, wasn’t the more difficult sentence.
“You’re going to die in prison,” Eckhardt told jurors, to put it in perspective.
Jurors who feel that Oyler still retained value have an obligation to speak up, Eckhardt explained.
The wildfire, which ignited Oct. 26, 2006, on a hillside in Cabazon, created chaos and devastation for nearby communities. Intense winds quickly carried the flames up the north side of the San Jacinto Mountains to Twin Pines, where they eventually consumed 41,000 acres.
The crew of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 had assisted with evacuations and was defending an unoccupied home perched at the top of a steep drainage when flames washed over them.
Killed were Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; and Pablo Cerda, 23.
“The last thing they did was put their lives on the line for someone else,” said Hestrin, who asked jurors to think about the firefighters’ last decisions, choices and fears as the flames overtook them.
“Let the punishment fit the crime,” the prosecutor said.