Prosecutors have dropped arson charges against two juveniles in connection with the Tennessee wildfires that killed 14 people and tore through thousands of homes and businesses in November, a law enforcement official said Friday.
In December, District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn announced charges of aggravated arson against the juveniles in connection with a fire in the remote Chimney Tops area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park that officials have said blew several miles (kilometers) into Gatlinburg, ravaging the vacation town. The juveniles are from Tennessee, but not Sevier County, where the fires spread, Dunn has said.
But after months of investigating, prosecutors can’t prove the youth were responsible because there were other factors contributing to the seriousness of the fires, such as 80-mph (130-kph) winds and downed power lines that ignited flames, Dunn said in a statement.
“Because of this intervening weather event, the state is unable to prove the criminal responsibility of the two juveniles beyond a reasonable doubt for the devastation that occurred outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Dunn said.
Attorney Gregory P. Isaacs, who represented one of the boys charged, said Friday that the evidence showed the juveniles didn’t cause the death and devastation.
He said the prosecution showed good judgment by dropping the charges after what appeared to be an “unfortunate rush to judgment.”
“Imagine, you are a young adolescent and you are accused of committing one of the most heinous crimes in East Tennessee,” Isaacs said at a news conference Friday. “But they’ve been very strong throughout this process.”
Dunn also cited jurisdiction issues. Any future decision about whether to charge the youths with setting the fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is now up to the U.S. Department of Justice, he said.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Nancy Stallard Harr said her office will review the evidence to see if further action is appropriate.
Isaacs called the boy whom he represented a “very fine young man from a very fine family.” He said the boy’s mother was grateful and tearful Friday at the news.
Isaacs said that under state law, the identity and location of the two juveniles remains confidential. The Associated Press generally does not identify juveniles involved with crimes.
Almost all information about the fires was kept under a judicial gag order because of the juvenile prosecution. That changed when a judge ruled in early June that the exemption from public disclosure was too broad, and should have only pertained to the children’s identities.
Isaacs said the dropped charges should be viewed as a positive for those affected by the Gatlinburg fires. A big question has been answered, he said.
“I think people aren’t looking for scapegoats,” Isaacs said. “I think they’re looking for answers.”