FRESNO – The couple convicted of starting numerous fires in the Yosemite Lakes Park (YLP) community and surrounding area in 2013 has won a partial victory as some of their convictions have been reversed on appeal.
However, Alice Waterman was released from prison on June 9, according to District Attorney David Linn, because she had served her time.
Kenneth Jackson and Alice Waterman were arrested on June 25, 2013, following a month-long investigation into a rash of suspicious fires in the YLP area over the five weeks leading up to their arrest.
The Coarsegold couple was prosecuted together before Judge Dale Blea in Madera Superior Court. Jackson was charged with 31 counts of arson, and Waterman with 10 counts. Jackson was also charged with battery on a peace officer and resisting arrest, and both were charged with conspiracy to commit arson.
On May 1, 2014, Jackson was found guilty by a jury on 21 of the 31 arson counts, and on the conspiracy, battery and resisting charges. He was sentenced to 30 years and 8 months in prison. He was eligible for parole in July 2017, but was denied and remains behind bars in California State Prison in Solano.
Waterman was found guilty on 6 counts of arson, and also of conspiracy. She received a sentence of 10 years and 8 months.
Due to recent laws passed in Sacramento, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has broad discretion in giving felons extra time credits. With credit served for her time behind bars while awaiting sentencing, Waterman had “timed out” and was released.
On Aug. 29, 2014, the couple filed an appeal to their convictions with the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno. Yesterday, the court issued its ruling.
The court reversed for “insufficient evidence” 8 of the 21 counts of arson for which Jackson was convicted, and 2 of the 6 counts for Waterman.
On appeal, the couple’s attorneys argued that the evidence was insufficient to support the arson and conspiracy convictions, that the trial court erred in allowing the prosecution’s experts to opine that arson caused some of these fires, and also erred when it allowed the prosecution to proceed against Jackson on six counts which were not charged in the complaint.
The defense also maintained that the trial court erred when it denied their motion for a mistrial based on a discovery violation, and in excluding certain third-party culpability evidence that suggested juveniles may have started some of the charged fires.
In a 167-page opinion handed down yesterday, the court said it found “no error in the admission of the prosecution’s expert testimony regarding causation. We find no abuse of discretion regarding the discovery violation and the exclusion of certain third-party culpability evidence.”
The court did, however, find what it considered to be insufficient evidence to convict on some of charges for individual fires.
In its conclusion, the court wrote, “This case is about taking the reasonable doubt standard seriously. The intuitively strongest aspect of the prosecution’s case is that it seems unlikely that there would be a group of fires correlated with the camera data on Jackson’s vehicles and a group clustered near defendants’ house unless Jackson or Waterman or both lit at least some of them.
“The trouble with this intuition is that it does not go far enough in light of the requirements of a trial in our system of criminal justice. The intuition is not enough to support a reasonable factfinder in finding beyond a reasonable doubt that both defendants were guilty of starting all the fires they were convicted of starting. But if all the convictions have not been supported by proof beyond a reasonable doubt, then which have, and how do we identify these?
“There must be sufficient proof to support each conviction. The intuition that the scenario as a whole cannot be a coincidence provides the necessary proof neither for all the counts collectively nor for any specific count. That is why I would affirm the convictions only on those counts as to which the necessary individual proof was presented.
“I am mindful of the community anxiety occasioned by the facts in this case. But this court is bound to uphold the principle that a criminal conviction must be supported by substantial evidence that can reasonably be found to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Former Madera County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Sally Moreno, who prosecuted the case along with Deputy District Attorney John Thackeray, and was exonerated of any prosecutorial misconduct in the court’s opinion, is disappointed by the reversal, however limited.
“Cal Fire did excellent work, we presented everything we had, and the jury of Madera County citizens found them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” says Moreno. “What could have we have done to avoid having these counts reversed? Perhaps wait and watch them set another fire so we could gather more evidence? That’s not a risk we were willing to take with public safety, and I wouldn’t change what we did. Letting these people start more fires was just too dangerous for our community.”
Jackson’s conviction on 13 counts, and Waterman’s on 4, still stand, and Jackson will be back in court soon to be re-sentenced on the revised verdict.
To read the entire opinion, click here.