MADERA COUNTY – A Coarsegold couple was sentenced today in Madera Superior Court to a combined 41 years behind bars, after being convicted of setting dozens of fires in the Yosemite Lakes Park area in May and June of 2013.
Kenneth Jackson, 41, and Alice Waterman, 47, both of Coarsegold, were convicted on May 1 of a combined 27 counts of arson, and one count each of conspiracy.
Jackson was also convicted of one count each of resisting arrest and assault on a peace officer.
Today, attorneys for both Jackson and Waterman argued that their clients should be granted a new trial.
Jackson’s attorney told the court that the investigative tool known as “negative corpus” should not have been brought into the trial. Negative corpus is the process by which all other possible causes of a fire are eliminated, leaving only arson.
“It inherently shifts the burden to me and my client to prove that the fire wasn’t arson,” said attorney Craig Collins. “The People have the burden of proof, not the Defense.”
Collins also made prosecutorial misconduct part of his motion, stating that Senior Deputy District Attorney Sally Moreno failed to turn over crucial evidence to the defense, causing them to be blindsided when a witness took the stand and changed his testimony based on that evidence.
He also argued that Moreno should not have even been prosecuting this case, due to the fact that both she and her husband participated in a soccer league in which defendant Waterman was a player.
He accused the prosecution of denying access to Cal Fire investigators without someone from the District Attorney’s Office being present, and maneuvering the trial into the Madera Superior Court, rather than Bass Lake, where he says it should have been heard. He also noted the presence of the press, and said the D.A. was trying to get publicity because it is an election year.
Waterman’s attorney Greg Gross told the court, “This was not a prosecution, this was a persecution. They molded their case to fit their initial conclusion – that these two people lit these fires.”
Gross argued that the D.A’s office only provided discovery after they learned that the defense already knew about it.
Moreno told the court that she had disclosed her connection with the soccer league in the beginning of the process. She also reminded the court that all these issues were litigated during the course of the trial, and that if the defense thought there was a conflict of interest, they could have asked that she be recused, which they did not do.
After hearing all the arguments, the judge ruled that, based on the totality of the evidence presented, he found it sufficient for the jury to have concluded that the defendants are guilty of the charges of which they were convicted, and denied the motion for a new trial.
As the proceedings moved in to the sentencing phase, both defense attorneys asked the court to place their clients on probation, rather than sending them to prison, citing lack of criminal history, strong ties to the community, their willingness to comply with probation, and their ability to work and pay restitution.
The judge noted that though the fires burned only vegetation, they were set in a residential community, and had it not been for the quick actions of firefighters, they could have been tragic. He also addressed the fear and vulnerability felt by residents over an extended period of time.
The judge sentenced Jackson to 30 years and 8 months in prison, and Waterman to 10 years and 8 months, both with credit for time served. The couple was arrested in late June 2013.
Defense attorneys then requested a hearing to consider bail pending an appeal, and the judge set the date for Aug. 18.
The defense has 60 days in which to file a written notice of appeal.