A German national convicted of setting dozens of fires in Hollywood, West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley more than six years ago was sentenced Friday to 33 years and four months in prison.
Judge George G. Lomeli handed down the sentence for Harry Burkhart, 30, less than two weeks after a jury found that the defendant was sane at the time of the crimes, which occurred between Dec. 30, 2011, and Jan. 2, 2012.
Prosecutors asked for a minimum 63-year prison term for Burkhart, noting that he was facing a maximum of more than 95 years behind bars.
“He’s not getting a slap on the hand,” the judge said, adding that he considered factors including the seriousness of the charges and Burkhart’s lack of a prior criminal record.
The judge said Burkhart had mental problems from a very young age, but said he was convinced that the defendant “indeed knew of his wrongdoing at the time he committed the crimes, legally and morally.”
The judge also noted that Burkhart will be ordered at a future hearing to pay restitution for all damages he caused, and will be ordered to register as an arson offender.
Three victims who had been impacted by the fires spoke during the sentencing hearing in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.
“… If I had woken up 30 seconds later, I might not be here to speak,” Cynthia Cobb told the judge.
Another victim, Matthew King, said, “It was by nothing shy of the grace of God that no one was killed.”
Sarah Kramer — whose car was destroyed in one of the blazes — told the judge that she was grateful she wasn’t in her car as it burned.
“While it was an older-model car, it was still the best car I could ever own,” she said. “What an extremely selfish and vulgar expression this crime was … I’m still recovering from the setback all these years later.”
Deputy District Attorney James Falco — who called Burkhart’s arson spree “an act of domestic terrorism” — cited planning, preparation and “strategic placement of devices that literally almost cost people their lives.”
“He picked under the cover of darkness when the people are sleeping and most vulnerable and most susceptible to potential loss of life and he should not be rewarded for the fact that no one was seriously injured or killed,” the prosecutor said.
Burkhart’s attorney, Steve Schoenfield, told the judge that he believed that anyone involved in the case realizes that “Harry’s been under the complete domination and psychological control of his mother, Dorothee Burkhart,” who did not want her son to accept the judge’s earlier offer of a 23-year prison term.
The defense lawyer said he understood the danger, pain and anxiety the fires had caused.
“But for some reason nobody was hurt at all except financially and psychologically, and I think that means something in the end,” Burkhart’s attorney told the judge.
The first jury to hear the case convicted Burkhart in September 2016 of 49 felony counts, but deadlocked on the sanity issue — with eight of those jurors finding that they believed he was insane and four others voting in favor of finding him sane.
The second jury to hear the sanity portion of the trial concluded March 5 that he was sane when he set the series of blazes beneath parked vehicles.
Burkhart’s attorney acknowledged during the trial that the fires resulted in an incredible amount of property destruction and traumatized a lot of people, but he said a forensic psychologist hired on behalf of the defense concluded that Burkhart was “legally insane when he committed these arsons.”
The defense lawyer told jurors Burkhart is mentally ill and developmentally disabled and has been hospitalized on numerous occasions for psychiatric illnesses, including once just four months before the arsons began, despite the defendant’s own protestations to authorities that he is not mentally ill.
Being separated from his mother, Dorothee, after her arrest in the United States in connection with a fraud case against her in Germany “meant the whole world was going to come to an end” and resulted in a “perfect storm,” Schoenfield said, telling the panel that setting the fires was “how he acted out.”
“It’s clear that what he did was irrational, lashing out at people that were not involved” in the criminal case involving his mother, the defense attorney said.
Deputy District Attorney Joy Roberts — who handled the case with Falco — countered that Burkhart knew the difference between right and wrong when he set more than 40 fires in less than a week.
The prosecutor said Burkhart’s “arson rampage” was spurred by a desire for revenge for his mother’s arrest, calling the attacks “methodical,” “premeditated” and “done under the cover of night” in areas where he could quickly set fires and then escape without being detected.
“The evidence will show he hated America,” Roberts told jurors. “He told his mother he wanted to roast America … Roasting America is exactly what he did.”
The arson spree began a day after Burkhart had an angry outburst in a federal courtroom while there to see his mother, Roberts said. The prosecutor told jurors the defendant was repeatedly seen on surveillance video buying supplies to start fires and did not show any signs of a psychotic break.
Burkhart was convicted of 25 counts of arson of property, 18 counts of arson of an inhabited dwelling and two counts each of possession of an incendiary device, attempted arson and arson of a structure.
Most of the blazes were started under vehicles parked in carports or near homes, but one vehicle was set on fire Dec. 30 in the parking lot of a shopping center in Hollywood and another at a complex nearby on New Year’s Eve.