A deal to put the woman suspected of starting the fire that severely injured Fresno Fire Capt. Pete Dern behind bars for seven years was derailed in Fresno County Superior Court on Wednesday, and the case now appears to be headed for trial.
Judge Don Penner rejected the seven-year prison term previously agreed to by both the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office and counsel for Julia Harper, 52. He didn’t give a specific reason for the decision, but he noted that the severity of Dern’s injuries and status as a firefighter as factors.
Harper was arrested April 23 for allegedly starting a fire at a home she’d been staying at on Cortland and Del Mar avenues. Dern fell through the garage’s roof as he and other firefighters battled the blaze last March. He suffered second- and third-degree burns on about 65 percent of his body.
Wednesday’s decision came after some verbal sparring between Harper’s attorney, Mark Siegel, and Blake Gunderson, one of District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp’s top assistants.
Gunderson seemed intent on getting the plea agreement tossed out of court entirely. It was agreed to by a different prosecutor, and Gunderson mentioned several times that Dern did not approve of the deal.
Siegel countered by explaining that the deal was binding – regardless of which prosecutor made it. Harper would face a maximum of 14 years in prison, and Siegel said that a plea term for half of the maximum sentence was normal in these circumstances.
He said he plans “to put the Fresno Fire Department on trial,” which could damage the department.
“There was a failure to act by the department to protect Capt. Dern, but I don’t want to dwell on it here and now,” Siegel said. “I’m not sure if it serves public interests” to do so.
Siegel mentioned a multi-agency investigative report that criticized department safety practices at the time Dern fell through the roof and into flames.
Dern suffered second- and third-degree burns on about 65 percent of his body. The injuries have required several surgeries and a major rehabilitation effort.
Penner agreed with Siegel that the agreement itself was binding but the sentence attached was not, he said.
After Penner rendered his judgment, the choice was put to Harper. She could still technically accept the plea without a sentence attached, but Penner told her flat-out that he would assess the maximum penalty allowed for arson of an inhabited structure leading to gross bodily injury: nine years in state prison. The other option was to withdraw from the plea agreement and restart the criminal proceedings.
It took less than 10 minutes of discussion with her attorney to decide: no deal.
The court then switched gears and re-arraigned Harper on the spot. Gunderson submitted a formal charge for the arson with the special enhancement that it injured a firefighter on the job. Harper was then remanded to Fresno County Jail.
The next court date is Feb. 29.
Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis responded to the proceedings in a statement to The Bee.
“I have faith and trust in our district attorney,” Donis said. “She believed this was the best approach.”
Donis noted that Siegel’s statements about her department were part of his job to defend his client to the best of his ability.
“We’ll just have to address those issues (raised in court) as they come.”