Fires can occur under a great variety of circumstances. Chicago’s great history itself is centered around a catastrophic fire that completely changed the face of the City and altered forever its destiny and the shape that it would eventually take. The well-known legend is that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in a barn, which ignited the Great Chicago Fire. Of course, they did not have the sophisticated scientific equipment or know-how to conduct a proper Arson Investigation at the time and the world will never know for certain just how that fire happened. If the fire was started due to carelessness, random chance or some other natural circumstance, that would be one thing, but if the fire was started intentionally, then it was Arson or maybe even Aggravated Arson.
The penalties for Arson depend upon the property that has been damaged, as well as whether people were injured, or killed, as a direct result of the blaze.
Arson is when a person, through the use of fire or explosives knowingly damages any real property or any personal property that is worth at least $150.00 and this property belongs to someone else and is done without their consent, OR with the intent to defraud an insurer, damages any real or personal property valued at $150.00 or more. “Property of another” includes property that the offender might have a personal interest in, but someone other than the offender also has an interest in the property as well. When one considers “through the use of fire”, this will include any means of igniting a fire that was intentionally set in motion to cause ignition. Through the use of explosives means any volatile substance that has explosive force, and which was intentionally ignited causing fire and explosive damage. Arson committed against any undesignated property is a Class 2 Felony, which is punishable by a term of imprisonment for a fixed period between 3 to 7 years; or a term of probation up to 4 years, not to mention restitution and/or fines, which will be beyond most people’s reach to ever pay.
Residential Arson is when, in the course of committing an act of Arson, knowingly damages (in whole or in part) any building or structure that is the dwelling place of another. Place of Worship Arson involves the knowing damage (in whole or in part) to any place of worship in the act of committing an Arson. Either of these crimes is elevated to a Class 1 Felony, punishable by a period of incarceration of not less than 4, nor more than 15 years in prison. Probation is not an option for either of these offenses, as it is prohibited by law.
Aggravated Arson involves the commission of an act of Arson against another’s building or structure, including adjacent property that also caught on fire, including school property, house trailers, watercraft, motor vehicles or railroad property, and the offender knows (or reasonably should know) that one or more persons are present therein; OR any person suffers great bodily harm, permanent disfigurement as a result of the Arson; OR a fire fighter, police officer, or correctional officer (Arson happens quite frequently inside correctional facilities) is injured in any way in the line of duty responding to the Arson scene. School property refers to anything from pre-school (public or private) all the way up to College or University. Aggravated Arson is a Class X felony, punishable by a period of not less than 6 nor more than 30 years in prison, and there is no probation. If a Judge was to determine that aggravating factors would justify an extended term sentence, one could be sent to prison for no less than 30, and up to a maximum of 60 years in prison.
It is important to note that, when it comes to the ability to bring charges against someone for Arson or Aggravated Arson, that there is no statute of limitations. The Illinois Code of Criminal Procedure states that a prosecution may be commenced “at any time.” So, in theory, if the Chicago Police could uncover the evidence of how the Great Chicago Fire was started, and they determined it was Arson, if the offender were alive today, he or she could be prosecuted for what surely would be considered one of the most egregious crimes in the History of Chicago.
In Chicago as well in all of Illinois, there is no longer a death penalty at the present time. But, in the not too distant past, we had the death penalty here in Illinois. Back then, the law specifically provided that if someone died during the commission of a forcible felony, including Arson or Aggravated Arson, then the offender was eligible to be sentenced to death. It would require two trials: the first to determine one’s innocence or guilt, and the second to determine the penalty: life or death. Now, with the death penalty off of the table, the fight at sentencing becomes one of a life sentence without the possibility of parole, a straight life sentence, or a fixed term of imprisonment of 20 to 60 years, with the possibility of an extended term beyond. Of course, the sentence to be imposed upon an Arson-related First-Degree Murder will greatly depend upon the property that was targeted, the offender’s knowledge as to persons being present, and the means of committing the crime. The more heinous the facts, the more severe the sentence will be. It should go without saying that there is no statute of limitations in the prosecution of First-Degree Murder, especially that which occurred by means of Arson.
It is not a crime, in and of itself, to merely possess explosive materials or explosive or incendiary devices. For example, model rockets involve the use of explosive materials and electronic ignition systems to activate them. However, it is a crime to possess, manufacture or transport any explosive compound, timing or detonation device for use with any explosive compound or detonating device, when done so with the intent to commit any offense, or knowing that another intends to use the explosive or device to commit a felony. So, you cannot make explosives from fertilizer or other volatile substances for use in a crime, of say blowing up a Federal Building, and possess them or transport them for that purpose. To do so is to commit a Class 1 Felony, which if a term of imprisonment is rendered, shall be in a range of no less than 4 years, nor more than 30 years in prison, without any special requirement for other factors in aggravation that would justify an otherwise extended term of 15 to 30 years (which would be required in almost any other Class 1 felony sentencing).
Whenever a fire happens under suspicious or unusual circumstances, the Fire Marshall steps in and conducts a Fire Investigation. Hopefully, the police and firefighters responding to the scene were able to cordon off the crime scene and preserve as much as possible the building, structure or property in its current condition, to allow for forensic investigators to do their work. A well-trained investigator can determine the location of the origin of the fire, and conduct tests to determine if an “accelerant” (any substance or chemical that would be combustible, such as gasoline, kerosene, alcohol, etc.) was used. If an explosion occurred, they will look for bits and pieces of the explosive or incendiary device that caused the damage, and from the type of devices utilized, they can determine whether the job was “professional” and if they recognize the “signature” from prior investigations, this may point them in the direction of the offender.
Many years ago, a prominent Chicago attorney was convicted of the attempted murder of his wife, through the use of an incendiary, or explosive device, that was attached to her car, while it was parked at a suburban train station. Luckily for the wife, she was able to escape from the vehicle before the explosion tore through it, setting it ablaze, and almost destroying it completely. Unluckily for the attorney, the bomb investigators were able to recover enough pieces of the device to determine that is was likely made by persons affiliated with a notorious Motorcycle Gang and they were well known to the authorities. It took some persuasion, to be sure, but those hardened gang members gave up the attorney, they testified against him, and he eventually died in prison, serving a 45-year sentence.
In defending charges of Arson, Aggravated Arson, Attempt First-Degree, or First-Degree Murder, lawyers need to be aware of the science behind the investigation of Arson crime scenes. Lawyers need to very closely scrutinize every move the investigators made, and be prepared to have their work reviewed by their own scientific experts in the field to see if any mistakes were made along the way that would affect the validity of their findings. It has happened in the past that a person was convicted of Arson, only to be determined later that there was a critical error in the investigation, which led to an unjust result. If you are being charged with such a crime, it is imperative that you hire attorneys that understand what must be done to properly defend you in court.
Since 1990, the experienced attorneys at Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC have helped our clients protect their constitutional rights and secure a fair trial. Each of our lawyers has a history of successful cases. Call us 24/7 to speak to our office and be put into contact with a member of our legal team. You can contact us at (312) 644-0444.