The attorney for the woman accused, with her boyfriend, of starting the Lake Christine Fire said he is worried that a “mob” mentality will prevent his client from receiving fair treatment in the justice system.
Stan Garnett of Denver on Thursday also faulted District Attorney Bruce Brown for saying that it is the policy of the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office to never reduce the level of a fire-related criminal charge, upon conviction or the entering of a plea, if the case arose during a fire-restriction period. The policy stems from dry conditions posing a threat to residents of his judicial district, which includes portions of the midvalley, he said a few days after the fire ignited. At the time of the July 3 fire, the Roaring Fork Valley was, and remains, under stage 2 fire restrictions.
Garnett is representing Allison Marcus, 23, of El Jebel. Shortly after the blaze began, she allegedly admitted she used a rifle to shoot incendiary tracer rounds at the Lake Christine gun range, where among the posted rules are a prohibition against such bullets. Richard Miller, 23, initially denied using the tracer rounds but quickly admitted it, according to his arrest affidavit.
Marcus and Miller made their first court appearance Tuesday in Eagle County District Court. They each face three charges of fourth-degree arson and one count of setting on fire woods. Both are felonies.
“The primary concern I have is the community looking for a scapegoat overwhelming the case,” Garnett said.
He said while many facts are not in dispute, the case against Marcus “is tied directly to her mental state and what she knew at the time of what happened.”
The fourth-degree arson charges include legal standards that call for prosecutors to prove either that the couple “knowingly” started the fire, or ignited it recklessly, a lesser standard involving a person “consciously disregarding” a substantial and unjustifiable risk. The charges have been filed under the reckless standard, Garnett said.
Regarding that standard, he pointed to the 416 Fire near Durango, which may have been started by a spark from the Durango & Silverton Train. He asked whether operating the coal-fired train during the dry summer was a conscious disregard of the fire risk, or if Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which manages the Basalt gun range, did the same by allowing it to remain open amid the fire restrictions.
“This is an issue of whether the charges are appropriate,” Garnett said, reiterating his belief that should the case go to trial, a jury will exonerate Marcus.
And that could happen if Brown holds to his policy of refusing to lessen the level of the felonies or drop them to misdemeanors, common steps prosecutors use during plea negotiations in most cases to reach a disposition.
“It’s not helpful to announce what the plea disposition is going to be before the evidence is even known,” said Garnett, a former Boulder district attorney. “He has never talked to my client, he has never done a thorough interview. There are a lot of facts that they don’t know.”
Assistant district attorney Heidi McCollum said Tuesday that investigative reports continue to come in from various agencies.
Garnett said he’s been following comments people have made online about Miller and Marcus. He doesn’t believe their personal safety is in danger, but Garnett said he’s discussed concerns with Brown so that “mob rule doesn’t take over.”
“We have to make sure she isn’t scapegoated or overwhelmed by the community reaction to this,” he said. “The community needs to understand that the justice system needs to judge her based on what the evidence is.”
Not all of the online comments are negative. One woman wrote directly to the defendants Wednesday on Facebook. While the fire was a life-changing event — three homes were lost, scores were evacuated, and midvalley businesses have been impacted — “I know you didn’t mean to do this. I know in your heart you feel terrible. I know you are frightened about what is to come. All of our lives have changed because of the fire. But maybe we can be better because of it.
“I forgive you,” she wrote.
With the fire still at 12,588 acres and 90 percent containment, the reaction to the post was unsurprisingly mixed.