Advertisement

German national convicted of setting dozens of fires in L.A. County found to be sane

German national convicted of setting dozens of fires in L.A. County found to be sane
Harry Burkhart in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom after being found guilty of arson on Sept. 1, 2016. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

A German national who set dozens of fires in Hollywood, West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley within less than a week was found Monday to be sane at the time he committed the crimes.

Harry Burkhart is set to be sentenced March 23.

Advertisement

A six-man, six-woman jury deliberated for five hours Friday and then, shortly after coming to court Monday, let the judge know they had reached a verdict in the sanity phase of the trial.

Burkhart, who was seated in a wheelchair and wearing jail clothes, told a German translator he wanted to be seated facing a television camera as the verdict was read. But he showed no emotion as the clerk read the jury's decision.

He did ask that the sentencing be set within two weeks.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Joy Roberts told City News Service she had not yet decided what she will recommend for Burkhart's sentence. The sanity finding means he could face nearly 89 years in prison.

The downtown Los Angeles jury was the second to be asked to consider whether Burkhart, now 30, was sane or insane when he set the series of blazes beneath parked vehicles between Dec. 30, 2011, and Jan. 2, 2012.

The first jury to hear the case convicted Burkhart in September 2016 of 49 felony counts, but deadlocked on the sanity issue — with eight of those jurors finding that they believed he was insane and four others voting in favor of finding him sane.

Burkhart's attorney, Steve Schoenfield, acknowledged during his opening statement that the fires resulted in an incredible amount of property destruction and traumatized a lot of people, but he said a forensic psychologist hired on behalf of the defense concluded that Burkhart was “legally insane when he committed these arsons.”

The defense lawyer told jurors Burkhart is mentally ill and developmentally disabled and has been hospitalized on numerous occasions for psychiatric illnesses, including once just four months before the arsons began, despite the defendant's own protestations to authorities that he is not mentally ill.

Being separated from his mother, Dorothee, after her arrest in the United States in connection with a fraud case against her in Germany “meant the whole world was going to come to an end” and resulted in a “perfect storm,” Schoenfield said, telling the panel that the evidence would show that setting the fires was “how he acted out.”

“It's clear that what he did was irrational, lashing out at people that were not involved” in the criminal case involving his mother, the defense attorney said.

Roberts countered during her own opening statement that Burkhart knew the difference between right and wrong when he set 40 fires in less than a week in Hollywood, West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

The prosecutor said Burkhart's “arson rampage” was spurred by a desire for revenge for his mother's arrest, calling the attacks “methodical,” “premeditated” and “done under the cover of night” in areas where he could quickly set fires and then escape without being detected.

“The evidence will show he hated America,” the prosecutor said. “He told his mother he wanted to roast America. Roasting America is exactly what he did.”

The series of arson fires began a day after Burkhart had an angry outburst in a federal courtroom while there to see his mother, Roberts said. The prosecutor told jurors the defendant was repeatedly seen on surveillance video buying supplies to start fires and did not show any signs of a psychotic break.

Advertisement

The prosecutor called Burkhart's actions “goal-oriented” and said he drove around Los Angeles looking for “targets of opportunity.” She said the only reasonable conclusion is that Burkhart knew the difference between right and wrong.

Burkhart was convicted of 25 counts of arson of property, 18 counts of arson of an inhabited dwelling and two counts each of possession of an incendiary device, attempted arson and arson of a structure.

Most of the blazes were started under vehicles parked in carports or near homes, but one vehicle was set on fire Dec. 30 in the parking lot of a shopping center in Hollywood and another at a complex nearby on New Year's Eve.

Advertisement
Advertisement