Two 13-year-old boys seen running from the scene were later arrested and were being held at the juvenile detention center, the Associated Press reported.
Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward said community reactions to the arrests were unusually swift and strong.
“[Crews] hadn’t even recovered the second firefighter’s body and people were calling and telling us what charges we should file,” Ward told The Washington Post on Thursday.
The reactions have refocused attention on recent criminal justice reform laws Ward said many in the community don’t seem to fully understand.
“Even with the most serious charges of murder, 13-year-olds in California can’t be tried as adults,” Ward said in a video statement that his office shared the day after the deadly fire. Even in cases of murder, juveniles in California are eligible for release at the age of 25, he added.
“I’m certain this information may be met with outrage,” he said. “This is why myself and many district attorneys across the state were against these changes to the law.”
Two of the laws in question were passed in 2018. One removed the ability of prosecutors to request that 14- and 15-year-olds be moved to adult court. (Currently, only minors ages 16 and 17 can be tried as adults.) The other changed the state’s felony murder law to end the possibility of first-degree murder charges for felony accomplices who don’t kill anyone, such as a getaway driver. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional.
Ward said many in town are angry that the stiffest penalties are off the table. The boys, both of Porterville, are being held on arson, manslaughter and conspiracy charges, but charges from the district attorney’s office are still pending as the investigation is ongoing.
The nearly 70-year-old library was at the heart of the community. The deaths of Figueroa and Jones have had a “chilling and somber” effect, Ward said. People have gathered to lay flowers near the burned building. An employee who answered the phone at the firehouse Thursday said everyone else had been sent home to grieve.
Ward’s clarification may not have done much to mitigate the town’s anger. As the investigation continues, he said, the incident appears to have exacerbated “already brewing frustrations” over the state’s criminal justice reforms.
“I’m all for the protections for the accused and of a fair process,” Ward said. “But when you start passing laws that protect the accused more than victims, many of us have issues with that.”
The laws look different from Michael Mendoza’s perspective. Mendoza, the national director of #cut50, an Oakland, Calif.-based bipartisan criminal justice reform group, agreed that the firefighters’ deaths and their effect are overwhelmingly tragic, but he said throwing the teens in an adult court and prison system would be, too.
“We still have the opportunity to intervene in and impact the lives of two 13-year-olds, who are kids,” Mendoza told The Post. He added that all the facts were not yet clear and that children, if guilty, still need age-appropriate services. Those services are what Mendoza said he didn’t get when he was sentenced to adult prison as a 15-year-old for participating in a gang-related murder, an act he has called “the worst mistake of my life.”
Mendoza argued that California’s new laws protect children from “emotional responses, such as times like this.” At the same time, he said, he understood why anger in the Porterville community was high.
Ward said his office wants to be “as aggressive and dogged as we can.” But at the same time, he said, he was ethically bound to file charges based on evidence, not on emotion.
“I’m sure whatever charge we file, there will be outrage in the community,” he said. “We’re mindful of that, but despite what the community’s position is, we can only file what we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”