An appeals court Thursday threw out a 12-year state prison sentence given to a former forestry worker who started the largest wildfire in Colorado history.
Terry Barton listens to testimony during her trial.
The Colorado Court of Appeals said state District Judge Edward Colt gave Terry Lynn Barton too harsh a sentence and had at least "the appearance of prejudice" because smoke from the fire had prompted him to leave his home for a night.
The court ordered a new sentencing hearing before a new judge for Barton, who admitted setting the June 2002 fire when she burned a letter from her ex-husband in a drought-stricken area.
The 2002 Hayman Fire southwest of Denver destroyed 133 homes, a commercial building and 466 outbuildings. Prosecutors said it caused at least $29.9 million in damage.
At the time of the fire, Barton was working as a U.S. Forest Service employee, responsible for ticketing people who violated the fire ban. She admitted starting the fire by burning a letter from her ex-husband in a Forest Service campground fire ring.
"Any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt," the appeals court said Thursday.
The appeals court also said the judge "injected comments about his personal experience" into his findings during the sentencing.
Before sentencing Barton in 2003, Colt told everyone in the courtroom that even though he was not one of the residents who was forced to evacuate, he was worried enough about his house burning that he left voluntarily.
"I have a place over the hill, up Teller 1, and my house was not burned. However, at one point, the fire, or the smoke, came over the ridge so strongly that my neighbor drove in my driveway and encouraged me to evacuate and I did," Colt said during the sentencing.
He said that through the course of his job as a Teller County judge, he has come into contact with many victims in the area.
"I've been a district judge in Teller County for a couple of years now so as I conducted my court since the fire, I can't tell you how many people have come before the court and told me about, for various reasons, how the fire has affected them. Some people come in to explain why they miss court. Others come into to explain why they haven't been able to make child support payments. So just by doing my job, I've come in contact with a lot of victims."
The court said Colt had helped a court clerk evacuate her home and helped serve food to people displaced by the blaze.
Barton is also serving a six-year federal sentence Carswell Women's Prison in Fort Worth, Texas. She pleaded guilty to both state and federal charges in the fire.
"It is very disappointing that the Court of Appeals has overturned Terry Lynn Barton's sentence for starting the one of the most destructive wildfires in Colorado's history," Gov. Bill Owens said after the decision was announced. "Ms. Barton's sentence of 12 years was based on the law at the time of her sentencing hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Blakely v. Washington came out afterwards, yet the Court of Appeals has relied on that opinion in remanding the Barton case for resentencing. We are working with the Colorado District Attorneys Council and others in developing legislation that will address the negative impact the Blakely case has had on criminal sentencing in Colorado."
- March 9, 2004: Woman Who Started Hayman Fire Back In Court
- March 24, 2003: Barton Begins Serving Federal Sentence Monday
- March 12, 2003: Barton Wants New Judge, New Sentence
- March 7, 2003: Barton's Lawyer: Judge Too Close To Fire To Issue Fair Sentence
- March 5, 2003: Barton Gets 12 Years For Hayman Fire
- February 21, 2003: Hayman Firestarter Gets 6 Years
- January 27, 2003: Hayman Firefighter Says He's Being Burned By System
- January 7, 2003: Judge Rules Barton Must Wear Ankle Bracelet
- January 6, 2003: Terry Barton Pleads Guilty To State Charge
- December 11, 2002: Legal Troubles Not Over For Terry Barton
- December 7, 2002: Barton Pleads Guilty In Hayman Fire Case
- November 27, 2002: Hayman Fire Suspect Makes Plea Agreement
- September 16, 2002: Accused Hayman Arsonist To Leave Halfway House
- September 10, 2002: Barton Wants Out Of Halfway House
- September 5, 2002: Judge Rules Barton's Confession Admissible
- August 30, 2002: U.S. Attorney Says Barton's Confession Valid
- July 26, 2002: Sister: Hayman Arson Suspect Didn't Mean To Set Fire
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