Monthly Archives: January 2007

Ready, Aim, Fire: The Politics of Arson

Two Seton Hall students were sentenced today to five years in prison for setting a fire that killed three of their fellow students.  Three deaths, five years.  The two young men, Joseph Lapore and Sean Michael Ryan, could be out on parole in as little as 16 months.

Daniel McGowan is also going to serve prison time in an arson case.  He participated in an two arson attacks at a tree farm and a lumber company.  He didn’t kill anyone.  Yet the shortest sentence he faces is longer than the 5 year maximum term that the two Seton Hall students will serve.

I am not someone who thinks that prison is a place that teaches people lessons, and I don’t think that the Seton Hall students should be thrown in prison for life and the key tossed away.  But I do think that their sentencing highlights the political motivations behind the prosecution of McGowan and his fellow defendants allegedly affiliated with the Earth Liberation Front.

McGowan is an environmental activist from New York, known to many for his work as a spokesperson during the Republican National Convention in 2004.  In December 2005, McGowan was arrested for his role in two arson attacks that took place in Oregon in 2001.  His arrest came as part of a series of arrests around the country, targeting environmental activists alleged to be part of the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front.  He faced a trial that could result in him spending the rest of his life in prison.  He has now reached a plea agreement with prosecutors that will give him a sentence of somewhere between 8 years and 63 months, aka 5 years and 3 months.

So how does this compare to the Seton Hall students?  Well, the actions of Lapore and Ryan killed three people: John N. Giunta, Aaron Karol, and Frank Caltabilota, Jr.  More than 50 other students were injured, including some who were severely burned.  Lapore and Ryan set a paper banner on fire in their dorm, celebrating a victory by the Seton Hall basketball team.  The banner caught a sofa on fire.  Rather than run through the dorm banging on doors, alerting sleeping students to the fire, the two fled.  The three students that died were killed by smoke inhalation, deaths that could have been prevented.

There were no sprinklers in the dorm; the deaths led to a New Jersey law requiring all dorms to have sprinklers installed, the first of its kind in the nation.

Lapore and Ryan have said that the fire was a “prank that got out of hand,” a claim rejected by family members of the dead.    Phillip Giunta, father of John, told ABC News  “I don’t think it was an accident. I don’t think it was a prank. I think that’s bull.”   Lapore and Ryan, in their plea agreement, acknowledged that they had tried to cover up their role in the fire, convening a group of students at a local Dunkin Donuts the day after the fire and encouraging them to lie to investigators.

McGowan, in contrast, has never said that the fires he was involved in were anything as frivolous as a prank.  In a statement to the judge when entering his plea agreement, McGowan said in part “I hope that you will see that my actions were not those of terrorist but of a concerned young person who was deeply troubled by the destruction of Oregon’s beautiful old-growth forests and the dangers of genetically modified trees. After taking part in these two actions, I realized that burning things down did not fit with my visions or belief about how to create a better world. So I stopped committing these crimes.”

The young man who harmed property only, perhaps misguided but certainly principled, will serve at least 5 years and three months.  Prosecutors are seeking the full 8 year sentence, with a possible “terrorism enhancement,” according to a website coordinated by McGowan’s supporters.   The two young men who got drunk after a basketball game, lit a banner on fire, fled the scene, killed three and injured dozens, could be out of prison in 16 months.

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