Did emotions sway the Harlow fire jury?
Madera Tribune File Photo Frederick Litke is shown here standing between his parents, awaiting the jury’s verdict on the charge that he set the Harlow Fire.
For five days, the Harlow fire ate up 43,000 acres between the Chowchilla River and Hwy. 41, destroying two towns and killing an elderly couple as they tried to escape the flames.
It started on July 10, 1961 and wasn’t brought under control until July 15. Within minutes of learning of the fire, District Attorney Lester Gendron and fire investigator Ed Bates were headed for the mountains. In a few hours, they were investigating the cause of the fire and interrogating several arson suspects. One turned out to be the individual they were looking for, Frederick Litke.
The 18-year-old Litke confessed to Bates that he started the fire on his birthday, Monday, July 10, 1961. He claimed he set the blaze to make it easier for the Harlows to round up horses. On Tuesday, July 11, a criminal complaint was brought against Litke for arson and two counts of murder for the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. George Kipp, who died in the conflagration.
It looked like an open-and-shut case. The youth signed the confession. He took investigators to the spot where he had set the fire. He confessed to his uncle, who was a police officer, that he was guilty, and he was extremely remorseful.
On July 27, Litke was arraigned in the Oakhurst Justice Court for arson and murder.
On August 23, the case went to the Madera County Grand Jury. Gendron asked for an indictment for arson and two counts of murder. At that point, the D.A. got a surprise. The Grand Jury refused to indict Litke for murder and chose, instead, to charge him with one count of starting a forest fire.
Gendron responded by reminding folks that the Harlow Fire ravaged 43,000 acres of forest and brush land, destroyed the communities of Ahwahnee and Nippinnawassee, and took two lives. Then, he pointed a finger at the Grand Jury.
“Litke is technically and legally responsible for all consequences of his act, but the grand jury doesn’t always follow the law,” Gendron said.
He went on to charge that members of the grand jury let their personal knowledge of the facts interfere with an objective view of those facts.
“The grand jury was swayed against a stiffer indictment because of a psychiatric report which claimed Litke’s emotional age was one or two years behind his chronological age.”
After a runaround over the possibility that Litke should be tried in a juvenile court [someone tried to use his birth certificate to prove that he had not turned 18 until the afternoon of July 10, which would have made him 17 at the time the fire was started on the morning of July 10], Gendron announced on Oct. 27, that Litke would face a public trial in Superior Court after all, but just for setting the fire. The grand jury refused to accuse him of anything more serious, although two persons died in the fire, which razed two mountain communities.
On Dec. 18, 10 women and two men took their seats as jurors in the case against Frederick Litke. Two days later, Gendron and defense attorney Herbert E. Bartow completed their final statements. With the trial over, Litke would soon learn how much prison time he would serve.
On Wednesday, Dec. 20, at 1:25 p.m. the jury came in with a verdict. Frederick Litke was found “not guilty” of setting the Harlow fire.
Jury Foreman Joe W. Ross, who spoke after the trial, said the word “maliciously” had figured significantly in the jury’s deliberations. Ross also pointed out that even if the boy was in some way responsible for the fire, he had been unaware of the damage he could cause by starting it. This apparently influenced this Jury, just as it did the Grand Jury in September.
So everyone went home to reflect — mostly to try to figure if justice had really been served in the case against Litke.
He confessed to setting the fire. When he showed investigators where it had started; he was spot on. One of the state’s most respected fire investigators and polygraph experts was convinced that he was guilty.
Based on his personal conviction that Litke was guilty of arson and responsible for the deaths of two people in the commission of a felony, District Attorney Lester Gendron had asked for an arson charge and two counts of murder. All they would give him was the arson charge.
Then even when he took that to court, the trial jury refused to hold Litke guilty of anything. For many, it just didn’t fit — until Bates wrote his book, “Arson Investigation.” This writer believes Bates has the answer to the leniency shown Litke. It boiled down to emotion.
Sometime after the fire, Bates and his wife, Freda, were attending a Madera Union High School band concert, and one of the members of the audience who recognized him, approached him. She told him that she had been on the Harlow fire jury and said “We found him not guilty because it was just a week before Christmas, and he was so young.”
Bates responded, “Well, Merry Christmas for those two elderly people who died.”