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Mistrial Declared After Deadlock Over Whether Notorious Convicted Arsonist Is Sane

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Los Angeles Fireman Matthew Hills looks at the damage done to an apartment complex on the morning after an arson fire destroyed two units and four cars in Hollywood on Dec. 29, 2011.
Mark Boster, LA Times via Getty Images
Los Angeles Fireman Matthew Hills looks at the damage done to an apartment complex on the morning after an arson fire destroyed two units and four cars in Hollywood on Dec. 29, 2011.

Nearly 50 arson fires blazed in Los Angeles during a four-day span over the holidays five years ago.

Earlier this month, a jury convicted a 29-year-old German named Harry Burkhart of setting those fires in carports, garages and driveways. But as reporter Danielle Karson tells our Newscast unit, a judge declared a mistrial after that same panel deadlocked over whether Burkhart is insane.

Only eight members of the 12-member panel thought he was insane, as Danielle reported. "Burkhart faced 90 years in prison if he was found sane," she says. "If the jurors decided he was insane, Burkhart would be sent to a state mental hospital."

NPR's Carrie Kahn told Morning Edition at the time of the attacks that they alarmed the entire metropolitan area. Here's more:

"Friday and Saturday night alone, nearly 40 fires were started. Most of these fires were car fires. The arsonist targeted the Hollywood area - North and West Hollywood - but these fires were set throughout a wide swath of L.A. County. They were in the dense cities, in the canyon areas and the hills - and those are scary areas, where fires can spread incredibly fast.

"The favorite target was a car in a carport; many were attached to apartments. So the fire, which was mostly started in the early morning, the cars would be lit on fires and engulf the entire carport, and sometimes parts of apartment buildings, too. Luckily, most were not damaged that much."

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She says the arsonist also set fire to a major parking structure under the Kodak Theatre, the site of the Academy Awards.

Danielle said "prosecutor Sean Carney told jurors Burkhart wanted revenge after his mother was arrested and extradited back to Germany." As Carney put it: "Los Angeles burned because Harry Burkhart, in his own words, wanted to 'roast America.'"

Carney also argued "that Burkhart carefully avoided capture after the arson attacks and knew that what he was doing was legally and morally wrong," as the Los Angeles Time reported.

Burkhart's defense attorney, Steve Schoenfield, told the court that his client is "profoundly mentally impaired," and has a history of mental illness dating back to his time in Germany, according to the Times.

Next month, a hearing is expected "to decide how to proceed with the case," as Danielle reports. She says the current stalemate means "the sanity phase of Burkhart's trial could be repeated with a new jury."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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