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Appeals court affirms arson conviction

Ronnie Jackson appealed his 2012 first-degree arson conviction stemming from a Brainerd fire to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Jackson argued insufficient evidence and district court errors. The appeals court did not agree and this March affirmed Jackson’s conviction.

In his appeal, Jackson contended district court errors included failing to properly instruct the jury on accomplice liability. And Jackson’s appeal argued facts found by the jury were insufficient to prove a sleeping person in the home was a “particularly vulnerable” victim.

The vulnerability of a person sleeping in a home set on fire was a reason the district court sentenced with an upward departure, or more prison time than listed with sentencing guidelines.

The appeals court found the evidence was sufficient and stated the Crow Wing County District Court did not err in its instructions and acted within its discretion in sentencing.

According to the court records:

• On June 20, 2011, Jackson got into an argument with a woman he was dating. The woman’s mother owned a home in Brainerd and her daughters lived there. Jackson had stayed at the home on-and-off while they were dating.

• At 11 p.m. that night, Jackson stopped by the home and another house mate, Chad Holmes helped him pack his belongings.

• Later that night Jackson returned to the home. The court reported the woman Jackson had been dating woke to Jackson punching her in the head. When the woman’s mother called 911, he told them he could burn their houses down. The woman owned another home in Barrows.

The Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Department responded to the call and began looking for Jackson after hearing about his threats.

• At 4 a.m. a man driving by the southeast Brainerd home called 911 after seeing a fire. The passerby banged on the door of the house until Chad Holmes and a woman emerged.

• During the investigation, officers matched Jackson to a description of a Holiday gas station customer who bought a gasoline can, a Bic lighter and $5 of gasoline on the early morning of June 21, 2011. A receipt for the items was dated 3:29 a.m. on June 21, 2011. Payment was made with a Visa card.

• Jackson and Nancy Portz, were stopped on Highway 169 near Onamia. A lighter and the purse of the woman he was dating was in his car along with a Visa card matching the one used for the purchase and a lighter.

• At first Jackson denied knowing anything about the fire. On June 22, 2011, he gave a statement admitting his participation. He admitted to “egging” Portz on, said he waited in the car while Portz ran to the house, said he handed Portz the gas can in the Holiday parking lot and that he knew Holmes was in the home when the blaze was set.

• Jackson was charged with first-degree arson. A jury found him guilty of first-degree arson, third-degree arson and fifth-degree arson. He was sentenced to 115 months for the first-degree arson conviction.

Jackson argued the evidence was insufficient to prove he was liable as an accomplice to first-degree arson because the state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt Portz intended to destroy or damage the home.

The appeals court disagreed.

The court said the circumstances proved by the state showed Jackson threatened to burn down the home, bought the gas, lighter and gas can, told Portz where the woman he was dating lived, drove there and egged Portz on. Once he saw the “whoosh’ of fire,” he and Portz fled the scene. The fire marshal determined the fire was intentionally set.

“The record supports the inference that Portz intended to set fire to the home itself and that Jackson knew that she was going to damage the home by fire and intended his presence or actions to further the commission of that crime,” the court stated. “... While Jackson told the police afterwards that he did not think Portz would ‘do it,’ we assume the jury disbelieved any testimony that conflicts with the guilty verdict.”

Jackson alleged the district court’s jury instructions “allowed the jury to find him guilty as an accomplice without first finding that he knew Nancy Portz was going to commit a crime and that he intentionally assisted in that crime.”

Since Jackson did not object to the jury instructions at trial, the appeals court reviewed for a plain error. The appeals court stated the defendant bears a heavy burden to show there is a reasonable likelihood an error substantially affected the verdict.

The appeals court agreed the district court’s jury instruction on accomplice liability did not comport with a Supreme Court decision that came after the Jackson case. The Supreme Court found jury instruction on accomplice liability must explain the element of “intentional aiding” meaning the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant knew his alleged accomplice was going to commit a crime and the defendant intended his actions or presence to further accomplish the commission of the crime.

The appeals court said the jury instructions do not constitute reversible error because Jackson could not meet his heavy burden showing the error substantially affected the verdict.

“The district court’s instructions, when read as a whole, actually imposed a heavier burden regarding the state of mind required to convict Jackson than is required for accomplice liability,” the appeals court stated. “ ... In instructing the jury on first-degree arson, the district court’s instruction required the jury to find that Jackson himself acted with the intent to destroy or to damage the dwelling, regardless of whether it found that Jackson acted as an accomplice or as a principal.”

The appeals court stated the “evidence at trial shows that the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Jackson knew that Portz planned to damage the home by fire. And Jackson’s actions in initially threatening to burn down the house, buying and providing the accelerant to Portz, driving her to and from the scene, and ‘egging her on’ conclusively show that he actively participated in committing the arson. Given the record here, the result would have been no different even if the district court had properly explained the ‘intentionally aiding’ element.”

As to whether Holmes was “particularly vulnerable” as a reason for the longer sentence, Jackson contended the factors found by the jury were insufficient to prove Holmes fit that category.

A particular vulnerability “impairs the victims ability to seek help, fight back, or escape harm,” the court stated. “We have upheld ‘sleeping’ as a form of particular vulnerability.”

Applying those principles to the facts of this case, the appeal court stated, made it much more serious than the typical first-degree arson.

“Setting a home on fire at 4 a.m. with the specific knowledge that a person is inside the home is far more serious than setting a fire during the day when the risk of a person being inside the home is unknown,” the court concluded adding a sleeping person was less likely to detect the fire, defend himself or escape.

For these reasons, the court stated it concluded the district court acted within its discretion in deciding on longer jail time for Jackson.

Jackson’s argument more facts should have been submitted to the jury on whether or not the victim was particularly vulnerable was meritless, the court reported.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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