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Brainerd man loses appeal on arson conviction

A Brainerd man, serving time for first-degree arson for starting a garage on fire in 2015 in Brainerd, has appealed the district court's decision on his conviction and has lost.

Steven Whitney
Steven Whitney

A Brainerd man, serving time for first-degree arson for starting a garage on fire in 2015 in Brainerd, has appealed the district court's decision on his conviction and has lost.

Steven Hamilton Whitney took his court case to the the Minnesota State Court of Appeals, challenging his first-degree arson conviction stating the prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he used a flammable liquid. The state court of appeals Monday ruled against Whitney and affirmed the Crow Wing County District Court's decision on his conviction.

Whitney was sentenced Dec. 17, 2015, by Crow Wing County District Judge Richard Zimmerman to five years and seven months-a total of 67 months-in the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud. Whitney was acquitted on a first-degree arson count where he knew there possibly was a person present inside the building. He was convicted of first-degree arson of using combustible/flammable materials to start a fire. Whitney has prior felony convictions for tampering with a witness, domestic assault and motor vehicle theft.

Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks affirmed the case. Judges John Rodenberg and Michael Kirk, also worked on the case. Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan and Candace Prigge, assistant county attorney, represented the state and Chief Appellate Public Defender Cathryn Middlebrook and Davi E. Axelson, assistant public defender in St. Paul, represented Whitney.

On May 5, 2015, Whitney purchased and pumped a small amount of gasoline into a gas can and drove to a house where he formerly lived and started a fire near the garage. The fire charred the garage and spread about 30 feet along a nearby fence before the Brainerd Fire Department arrived and extinguished it.

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Brainerd police responded to the fire and an officer, trained in basic arson investigations, noticed a partially melted gas can and smelled the odor of gasoline. Witnesses at the scene identified Whitney as the person who started the fire and he was seen on video surveillance purchasing the gasoline. During trial the officer testified the gasoline is a flammable liquid under the arson statute, but did not specify to the vapor pressure of gasoline, the appeals court document reported.

In the court of appeals, Whitney contends the state did not present sufficient evidence to convict him of first-degree arson because it failed to introduce evidence that gasoline has a vapor pressure not exceeding 40 pounds per square inch at 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Whitney contends that the state did not meet its burden of proof because it failed to prove that gasoline's vapor pressure met the vapor-pressure requirement in the definition of a flammable liquid.

A defendant cannot be convicted unless the state provides "proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged," the court document stated. "Here, the prosecutor relied on the officer's testimony to establish that gasoline is a flammable liquid as defined by the statute. The officer did not testify to the vapor pressure of gasoline. But he did testify that 'gasoline is a class 1-B flammable liquid.'"

In the judge's decision to affirm the district court's conviction, it stated: "While it would have been preferable for the prosecutor to have specifically asked the officer about the vapor pressure of gasoline, the prosecutor did ask the officer the fundamental question of whether gasoline meets the statutory definition of a flammable liquid. To that question, the officer responded affirmatively. This evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the conviction, is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to conclude that gasoline is a flammable liquid."

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