Jury to determine whether serial arsonist was sane at time of crimes

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A jury heard closing arguments in the sentencing phase of the trial of convicted arsonist Harry Burkhart on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. (KABC)

The fate of a convicted serial arsonist on Wednesday was placed in the hands of a jury, which was asked to determine whether he was insane when he set 51 fires in Hollywood, West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley in late December 2011 and early January 2012.

The central question for the panel was whether 29-year-old Harry Burkhart, a German national, understood that torching carports and occupied structures was legally and morally wrong.

In closing arguments, lawyers presented competing portraits of his mental health history.

Defense attorney Steve Schoenfield described Burkhart as so mentally ill that a precise diagnosis was nearly impossible. According to the defense psychologist, Burkhart has an IQ of 77 and has suffered from delusions since he was a teenager.

"He is being persecuted by spies. He is being poisoned. His own mother wanted him dead. This is what is going in the mind of 16-year-old Harry," said Schoenfield.

An expert testified for the prosecution that Burkhart is autistic yet highly functional.

The prosecutor said Burkhart's capabilities were demonstrated in the methodical way he set so many fires over a four-day period, carefully avoiding detection.

Burkhart operated only at night, using igniting materials that would take 10 minutes to spread flames, giving him plenty of time to escape.

"He is not compulsive," the prosecutor said. "He is able to start and stop at times of his choosing for maximum effect. That shows that Harry Burkhart knows what he is wrong."

The prosecution contended that Burkhart acquired the skill of scamming people from his mother, a fugitive sent back to Germany to face fraud charges.

"She is a grifter. She is a lying liar who lies. He learned how to manipulate just like his mother did," said Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney.

At stake is where Burkhart will spend the coming years.

If found sane, he could spend as many as 89 years in prison and be treated for his mental illness behind bars. If the jury believes he was insane when he set the fires, Burkhart would be sent to a state hospital until he is no longer deemed a threat to public safety.

Related Topics:
arsonfiretrialLos Angeles CountyWest HollywoodNorth HollywoodSan Fernando Valley
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