Jury selection began today for the trial of a German national accused of going on a three-night arson spree and setting more than 40 fires in West Hollywood, Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.
Harry Burkhart, who turns 29 on Friday, has pleaded both not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. If he is convicted, jurors will be asked to determine if he was sane at the time of the crimes. He has been in custody for more than two years in lieu of $7.5-million bail.
Investigators believe Burkhart acted out of rage against Americans after his Russian-born mother, Dorothee, was ordered to be extradited to Germany. Burkhart had been living with his mother in an apartment on Sunset Boulevard near West Hollywood. He and his mother had fled Germany, where she had been arrested on fraud charges, for Canada and then the United States.
According to a court declaration prepared by a sheriff’s investigator, Burkhart became enraged during his mother’s deportation hearing, shouting things such as “(expletive) all Americans,” and had to be escorted out of the courtroom by U.S. marshals.
When images of “a person of interest” were released in connection with the arson fires, a federal law enforcement officer who had witnessed the outburst recognized Burkhart and gave local authorities his name, according to the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office.
L.A. Superior Court Judge George Lomeli told the first group of prospective jurors that Burkhart is accused of placing incendiary devices under the front of cars on Dec. 30 and Dec. 31, 2011 and Jan. 2, 2012.
“The prosecution contends that Harry Burkhart set the arson fires using an incendiary device or combination of incendiary devices,” the judge said, reading from a factual summary of the case.
Burkhart allegedly drove a van during the evening or night hours, stopped at various cars, placed incendiary devices under the front of the vehicles and then lit the devices before driving away. On 19 occasions, the fires spread from the cars to adjacent inhabited dwellings.
He was arrested Jan. 2, 2012, at Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue by a reserve sheriff’s deputy who spotted his minivan. Investigators allegedly found incendiary devices that matched those used to light the fires when they searched Burkhart’s vehicle.
Burkhart was charged in January 2012, then indicted last year on 25 counts of arson of property, 19 counts of arson of an inhabited dwelling, two counts each of possession of an incendiary device and attempted arson and one count of arson of a structure.
Over the defense’s objection, the judge ruled that jurors will also be allowed to hear about four other fires in which Burkhart is suspected but has not been charged.
Another panel of prospective jurors is due in court tomorrow to fill out questionnaires, with both sets of potential panelists due back in court Thursday to be questioned by the attorneys. Opening statements in his trial are expected Monday.