12-year term thrown out for woman who lit wildfire

Forestry worker's sentence too harsh, Colo. court says

December 17, 2004|By David Kelly | David Kelly,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DENVER - A 12-year prison sentence handed down to a forestry worker who ignited the worst fire in Colorado history was thrown out yesterday on the grounds that it was prejudiced and too harsh.

The Colorado Court of Appeals ordered a new sentencing hearing for Terry Lynn Barton, who pleaded guilty to fourth-degree arson in setting the 2002 Hayman fire, which burned 138,000 acres.

The court said state District Judge Edward Colt, who sentenced Barton to twice the normal prison term, was so personally involved in the fire that he was unable to be impartial.

During the sentencing, Colt told Barton how he was forced to evacuate his home because of smoke from the fire and later volunteered at the Salvation Army, giving food to others rendered homeless by the blaze. His clerk was overheard saying Barton should "receive more than death" for setting the fire, the appeals court said.

Such personal involvement, the court ruled, could reasonably "call the judge's impartiality into question."

During the original court proceedings, Colt denied a motion to recuse himself from the case.

Barton started the fire after burning a letter from her former husband in a parched area of Pike National Forest near Denver. The resulting blaze burned 300 buildings and caused $29 million in property damage. More than 8,000 people fled their homes.

The ruling doesn't affect a separate six-year sentence Barton is serving on federal charges stemming from the fire. She is serving the state and federal sentences concurrently.

The appeals court said Colt erred by doubling the usual sentence for the crime. Colt had reasoned that because Barton was a forestry worker, she would have known how dangerous it was to start a fire in drought conditions.

The appeals court said Barton was never told she had a right to have a jury determine aggravating factors.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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