By Mary Slosson
(Reuters) - A California jury on Friday recommended a death sentence for a man found guilty of starting a 2003 wildfire that burned nearly 100,000 acres, damaged more than 1,000 homes and led to the deaths of five people, prosecutors said.
Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, had already been convicted of arson and five counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of people prosecutors said lived in the fire's path and died from heart attacks caused by the stress of evacuation and threats to their homes.
"We take capital punishment seriously. We don't seek capital punishment on every murder," San Bernardino District Attorney Michael Ramos said. "It's for those people who are most horrendous murderers, rapists - people like Rickie Fowler."
The death sentence recommendation, on which the judge will make a final ruling at a later hearing, comes just over a month before California voters will decide on a November ballot measure whether to repeal the death penalty in a state that is home to nearly a quarter of the nation's death-row inmates.
The October 2003 blaze that Fowler was convicted of starting, called the Old Fire, burned in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California, eventually scorching 91,281 acres.
A 2009 grand jury indictment in the case determined that Fowler, while not the actual killer of the five people, started the fire with "reckless indifference to human life."
Prosecutors note that individuals who commit a serious violent felony - like robbery, kidnapping, or arson - that results in death are eligible for capital punishment.
Jurors deliberated for 11 days during the trial's penalty phase before returning a death sentence recommendation, prosecutors said.
While the death penalty remains on the books in California, the state has executed just 13 people since reinstating capital punishment in 1978. More than 720 inmates sit on death row in California, pending long, expensive appeals.
A federal judge halted all California executions in 2006 after ruling that a three-drug protocol used for lethal injections carried the risk of causing inmates too much pain and suffering before death.
California has since revised its protocol, but an appeals court has blocked a resumption of executions.
Fowler had already been sentenced under California's three-strikes law to 75 years to life in prison for committing sodomy against another inmate while behind bars, prosecutors said.
They added that he had prior convictions for rape and drug offenses. Fowler's defense attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)