Busted plea deal for accused arsonist in Dern case

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A busted deal could mean a lot more time in prison for the woman accused of causing the burns to Fresno Fire Department Capt. Pete Dern. (KFSN)

A busted deal Wednesday could mean a lot more time in prison for the woman accused of causing the burns to Fresno Fire Department Capt. Pete Dern.

Julia Harper hasn't officially admitted to setting the fire that's now been seen around the world -- the one where Dern dropped from the roof of the home in which Harper had been living. But for the first time, we heard Wednesday what might've provoked her to set the fire. "She had paid up for the month and there's reason to believe that a number of the other residents of the household had unceremoniously ushered her out," said her defense attorney, Mark Siegel.

Siegel admitted that's no legal excuse for what happened, but argued provocation is one of many reasons Harper deserved the 7-year sentence from a plea deal she accepted in December. He said she also had very little criminal history, she has some mental health issues, and she admitted her role in the fire quickly. Prosecutors weren't buying it. "I appreciate counsel's effort to make chicken salad out of chicken byproduct," said assistant district attorney Blake Gunderson.

The district attorney's office initially agreed to the 7-year sentence on a charge with a maximum of nine years. But after Capt. Dern and his wife told them they didn't like the deal, prosecutors asked the judge to undo the deal. Even when he did, Harper still could've taken the 9-year max, but she rejected it and Siegel hinted the next step could be a fight. "It was never my desire or Ms. Harper's desire to get ugly," he said.

An independent accident review put some of the blame for Dern's injuries on a culture encouraging firefighters to take unnecessary risks. Siegel says he may end up forced to put the fire department on trial. But even so, fire chief Kerri Donis tells Action News she supports the district attorney's decision to break up the deal. "I mean, you have to do the right thing even if that's a possibility," she said.

After Harper rejected the nine-year offer from the judge, prosecutors added onto the criminal complaint. Harper could now face 14 years in prison.
Related Topics:
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