A prosecutor told jurors today that a German national convicted of setting more than 40 fires in less than a week in Hollywood, West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley knew the difference between right and wrong, but the man’s attorney said the evidence would show that his client was legally insane at the time of the crimes in late 2011 and early 2012.
The downtown Los Angeles jury is the second to be asked to consider whether Harry Burkhart, now 30, was sane or insane when he set the series of blazes under the front of 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 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 that they would hear evidence that 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 were “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.
Deputy District Attorney Joy Roberts countered that 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 arson spree 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 that they are going to have to analyze the choices made by Burkhart, saying the defendant was repeatedly shown on surveillance video buying supplies to start fires and did not show any signs of a psychotic break.
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 — who listens to the court proceedings through a German interpreter — 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.
The defense has the burden of proof in the sanity phase of trial, with jurors being asked to determine if there is a preponderance of the evidence — rather than the greater standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt required in the guilt phase of the trial — to show that he was legally insane at the time of the crimes.
Burkhart has remained jailed since his arrest, and could face nearly 89 years in state prison if jurors find that he was sane at the time of the crimes. He would be sent to a state mental hospital instead of state prison if jurors find he was insane at the time of the fires.