Ramsey County District Court File No. K0011594
Considered and decided by Wright , Presiding Judge, Anderson , Judge, and
Stoneburner , Judge.
Fourth-degree arson is a lesser-included offense of first-degree arson.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stoneburner, Judge
Appellant Cynthia Lue Davis challenges her conviction of arson in the first degree, arguing that the district court erred by refusing to instruct the jury on fourth-degree arson as a lesser-included offense and that the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction of first-degree arson. Because the district court abused its discretion by failing to instruct the jury on fourth-degree arson, we reverse.
Davis admitted that she intentionally set fire to a couch located in the basement of Oxford House, a residence for people recovering from alcohol and chemical dependency. The facility is a side-by-side duplex, connected by a single door in the basement. One side of the duplex houses eight male residents. The other side of the duplex houses eight female residents. Formal rules govern the residents' behavior. Residents of each unit decide who can live there.
Davis was a resident of Oxford House, but at a meeting just a few hours before she started the fire, the residents of the female unit, including Davis, agreed that Davis would have to leave Oxford House because she was not getting along with the other residents. Davis requested, and was granted, permission to remain for one more night. During the meeting, Davis mentioned that the smoke detector near the bedrooms needed new batteries, an issue she had noted when she first moved to Oxford House. Davis also disclosed that her mother had died in a fire.
After the meeting, Davis bought some batteries and had another resident help her install them in the smoke detector. When all of the female residents had gone to bed, Davis went to the basement and used a cigarette lighter to ignite an exposed piece of foam between the cushion and springs of the couch. Davis testified that she intended to make the couch smolder and create smoke, but did not intend to damage the building. As Davis left the basement, she noticed that the fire she started had accelerated into flames. She testified that she continued upstairs to get a fire extinguisher, but when she got to the main floor, someone was in the kitchen. Davis went to the living room and waited for that person to go back to bed, so her involvement in the fire would not be known. But Davis was unable to return to the basement due to the amount of smoke. Davis noticed that smoke was coming through the living room floorboards.
Two male residents who had discovered the fire on their side of the basement entered the female unit through the front door to alert the residents. One of the men saw Davis standing in the living room, wearing her coat, as smoke rose through the floorboards. He yelled at Davis to wake up the residents. All of the residents escaped.
Davis first denied, but later admitted, starting the fire. She also admitted that she had unsuccessfully tried to set the same couch on fire earlier in the afternoon, using a lighted cigarette.
St. Paul fire investigator Michael Domagall testified that the physical evidence did not support Davis's testimony that she only ignited the couch and that it was more likely that the fire was started in two places: at the base of the door separating the two halves of the duplex and in the couch.
The district court denied Davis's request that the jury be instructed on fourth-degree arson as a lesser-included offense. The jury found Davis guilty of first-degree arson. She was sentenced pursuant to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines to an executed ...