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Arson Charges for 2012 California Fire Upheld

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - A California appeals court refused Monday to set aside the arson indictment against a man who sparked a 2012 wildfire with a firework.

After the Robbers Fire burned more than 2,000 acres in rural Placer County, Byron Craig Mason "tearfully" took responsibility for the blaze, the ruling states.

Apparently the father of two had been holding a party with friends, family and pets at the Shirttail Canyon swimming hole on July 11, 2012, when the group ushered everyone out of the swimming hole.

Mason then lit an aerial firework and tossed it into the pond where it floated, then exploded, shooting sparks that ignited a brush 27 feet above the pool.

Police found a box of illegal-aerial fireworks in Mason's car and investigators say the Robbers Fire caused an estimated $13 million in damages.

Though the Placer County Superior Court dismissed the initial charges against Mason in March 2013, a grand jury indicted the man again on two arson charges that June. The case has been stayed since 2014 while Mason fought to set the new indictment aside.

A three-judge panel with the Third Appellate District vacated the stay and affirmed the indictment Monday, finding that prosecutors fulfilled their duty in informing the jury about the earlier unsuccessful charges.

"Thus, the magistrate's failure to hold Mason on the arson charges was the equivalent of a dismissal of those charges, and the prosecution could elect to proceed by way of indictment on those charges following the dismissal," Acting Presiding Judge Cole Blease wrote for the court.

The panel rejected Mason's claim that the district attorney failed to advise the grand jury of the lesser offense of unlawful burning, despite three jurors asking about the actual requirements for arson charges.

"Each comment showed concern about the meaning of the instruction on arson or its application to Mason," Blease wrote. "However, none of the comments suggested an instruction on the lesser offense of unlawful burning."

Mason's appeal also challenged testimony from the prosecution's expert witness as inadmissible, saying the witness, an enforcement officer with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, never visited the crime scene.

Finding this testimony admissible, Blease said the officer correctly reviewed evidence including photographs and statements from eyewitnesses.

Though Blease signed the 20-page opinion, he also furnished a dissent taking issue with the arson charges.

"It is clear on the facts of this case that Mason did not intend to set fire to forest land, that at most he was reckless and therefore liable for unlawful burning, and that the grand jury was wrongly instructed ... that arson does not require an intent to burn a forest land," Blease wrote.

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