2 juveniles charged in deadly Tennessee wildfires could face life in prison
GATLINBURG, Tenn. — The toll of the wildfires that ravaged Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in recent weeks is staggering: 14 people dead, another 175 injured, and more than 2,400 houses, businesses and other structures destroyed.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters estimates the damage to be more than $500 million. The federal government says nearly 20,000 acres of Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been scorched.
As the full extent of the catastrophic damage reveals itself, authorities — who early on suspected arson — said the blaze was man-made.
Or, more aptly, juvenile-made.
Two Tennessee youths are sitting in a Sevier County detention center.
If convicted of aggravated arson, they could go to prison for 60 years.
If more serious charges, including first-degree murder, are levied against them and they are convicted, they could spend the rest of their lives in prison.
But, for some in Gatlinburg, it won’t matter.
“If in fact they did set the fire, and they did it on purpose,” began Kent Emmons, whose home was destroyed, “I cannot think of a punishment severe enough for them.”
Drought, winds fuel fire
Authorities have said the firestorm began with an initial fire that was lit November 23 in the Chimney Tops area of the national park along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
One week later, on November 28, that fire — incubated by the area’s worst drought in nearly a decade, and fueled by erratic 70 mph wind gusts — had grown into at least 14 fires, and the flames had reached Gatlinburg, a popular resort town some 10 miles away.
The fire department ordered residents and tourists to evacuate, some with only the clothes on their backs.
Some, however, were not able to get out.
“If you’re a person of prayer, we could use your prayers,” Greg Miller, the town’s fire chief, said as the fires grew.
‘Everything is on the table’
“Everything is on the table,” is how local prosecutor James Dunn categorizes the case against the juveniles, who remain unnamed publicly because of their age. Among the unknowns is whether prosecutors will charge them as adults.
Because the law prohibits the dissemination of practically all information in juvenile cases, Dunn was left with little else to tell reporters at a news conference announcing their arrests.
Perhaps that’s why he repeated on four occasions: “Everything is on the table.”
The only additional information Dunn has revealed was that both youths were set to have a bond hearing within 72 hours of their December 7 arrest. But more than a week later, the Sevier County Juvenile Court has not held such a hearing, nor has any been scheduled, according to Matthew Jones, the court’s youth services officer.
CNN reached out to the two defense attorneys who have, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel, been retained by each of the juveniles’ families, but messages left for both have not been returned.
‘This is pretty complicated’
Although they’ve levied charges, authorities have ostensibly not yet determined what — if any — intentions they think the accused may have had, hence their leaving of “everything on the table” when it comes to the possibility of more — and more severe — charges.
So, while authorities continue to investigate, here is a look at what could be “on the table” in the state of Tennessee:
“This is pretty complicated,” says CNN legal analyst Danny Cevallos. “Depending on the facts of the case, even if they didn’t intend to kill anyone, they still could be charged with first-degree murder.”
According to Cevallos, that’s because the statute defining first-degree murder in Tennessee includes the “killing of another committed in the perpetration of or attempt to perpetrate,” several specific offenses, among them arson.
In Tennessee, conviction of first-degree murder carries life in prison, life without the possibility of parole, or the death penalty.
If authorities determine that the guilty party or parties did not intend to kill, but do not charge them with first-degree murder, then the two next most severe charges — second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter — would be off the table, according to Cevallos, because the former requires “an intentional killing,” and the latter an “intentional killing with provocation.”
Should that be the case then — that the intention was not to kill — Cevallos says the next most severe charges available to Tennessee authorities after first-degree murder would be reckless homicide, which is punishable by up to 12 years in prison, or criminally negligent homicide, which is up to six years.
Of course, for either to be tried on any of these charges, each would have to be tried as an adult.
And that is something, according to Dunn, that is still on the table.