DCA Overturns Teens' Conviction in Golden Eagle Fireworks Fire

By: Eyewitness News; Lanetra Bennett; Julie Montanaro Email
By: Eyewitness News; Lanetra Bennett; Julie Montanaro Email

UPDATED
By Julie Montanaro
February 28, 2013

The First District Court of Appeals has overturned the arson convictions of Jonathan and Christopher Howard.

The brothers were found guilty in juvenile court last year in connection with a fire at a Golden Eagle home back in June 2011. The state fire marshal ruled it an arson and the judge agreed, but the brothers claimed all along it was an accident.

"I think at the end of the day, they simply wanted their side of the story to be heard and they're grateful that the appellate court agreed with them that this was simply nothing other than an accident," said attorney Michael Ufferman, who handled the appeal.

The brothers's attorneys contend they rang the doorbell and set off fireworks, but the launch tube accidentally tipped over and the fireworks went through the front window instead of into the air.

The appeals court judges overturned the convictions for felony arson on Wednesday. The opinion said "we conclude the evidence failed to negate appellants' reasonable hypothesis of innocence that the incident was purely accidental."

The Howard's attorney says the ruling has been a long time coming.

"They've had to go through a trial, an appeal. Those are not cheap and they're not fast. They were blasted in the media. They were taunted at school. They suffered. They suffered a lot," trial attorney Matt Willard said.


[UPDATE] Tallahassee, Florida - April 13, 2012 - 6pm -

A husband and wife say they were awakened to the sound of a door bell, a barking dog, and an explosion.

That explosion has now resulted in two teens being convicted of arson.

The teens say they were playing a game called, "Ding Dong Ditch." That's where you ring someone's door bell and run. Last summer, Jonathan and Christopher Howard added a twist, by adding fireworks to the prank.

That prank ended with a house on fire, and the teens on trial.

Prosecutors say the damage may not have been the plan, but, the plan still caused the damage. They say that's arson.

Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers says, "The state has clearly met its burden."

Jonathan and Christopher Howard were found guilty Friday of what their attorney called, "a prank gone wrong."

The attorney says on June 27, 2011, Jonathan rang the door bell at this Golden Eagle home in Tallahassee, while Christopher lit fireworks on the street.

The teenagers were supposed to run away leaving only a fireworks show.

John Stout lives in that home. On the stand during trial, he says, "I saw a big orange flame coming up in the room. I immediately called for my wife to go get the children out of the house. The room was engulfed within a few seconds."

The defense says the firecracker toppled over, and mistakenly flew into the Stout's home.

John's wife, Sarah Stout, said on the witness stand, "There was a hole about baseball-sized in one pane of the window. I just started blasting water into that hole, bringing the flames-down. They were already lapping up curtains and taking the room out. I just started spraying through that hole like a carnival game almost."
Willard/Defense Attorney AT 1:04 QUICK

The defense attorney says, "The reality is this, accidents happen every single day in this country."

Juvenile Justice is going to make a recommendation on the teens' sentencing, and the judge is scheduled to sentence them on May 17th.

Judge Gievers told the teens to go to school and stay out of trouble until then.

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[UPDATE] Tallahassee, Florida - April 13, 2012 - 1:05pm -

Judge rules both boys are guilty of first degree arson. Judge Karen Gievers made the decision. Judge Gievers will decide on May 17th on what will be done with the teens after hearing a recommendation from Juvenile Justice.

Stay with WCTV for much more on this story. Further information about this case can be read below.
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[UPDATE] Tallahassee, Florida - April 13, 2012 - 12:49pm -

The defense has asked for a dismissal or J.O.A., a Judgment of Acquittal. The defense says there's lack of evidence.

Court is in a brief recess.

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[UPDATE] Tallahassee, Florida - April 13, 2012 - 12:18pm -

The state has rested. The defense is doing closing arguments.

The defense said the boys wouldn't have rang the homeowners' door bell if they intended to burn home. The prank was only for the homeowners to come out and see the fireworks going on in the street. The prank went wrong when the fireworks toppled over and flew into the home.

12:34pm -

The State is doing closing arguments now. The prosecutor says the teens are responsible for arson because they intentionally lit the fireworks.
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[UPDATE] by Lanetra Bennett - Tallahassee, Florida - April 13, 2012 - Noon -

Two teens accused of launching fireworks into a home are on trial.
Jonathan and Christopher Howard are charged with arson.

The trial is taking place inside courtroom 3E. Jonathan and Christopher Howard are accused of starting a fire that gutted a room in a Golden Eagle home. The defense attorney says it was a prank gone wrong. The prosecutor says pranks gone wrong are still criminal.

The owners of the home, Sarah and John Stout, took the stand this morning. They described their home as "significantly damaged."
Authorities say on June 30, 2011, the two teens lit fireworks in front of the Stout's home, which cause the home to catch fire.

The defense attorney says the teens did not mean to cause damage.

_________________________________

UPDATED 9.27.2011 by Julie Montanaro

Two teens accused of a prank that set a Golden Eagle home on fire are scheduled to appear in court again on October 18th.

Deputy State Attorney Georgia Cappleman says the Howard brothers' cases will be handled in juvenile court. She "does not anticipate them being direct filed" in adult court.

Cappleman says potential penalties in the case could range from probation to commitment to a juvenile justice facility.

Cappleman says the state attorney's office is not allowed to comment on the specifics of juvenile court cases.
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[UPDATE] 9-27 -

Two Tallahassee teenagers accused in a July 4th prank that set a house on fire are scheduled to appear before a judge this morning.

16-year-old Jonathan Howard and 14-year-old Christopher Howard are charged with felony criminal mischief.

Deputies say on June 28th, a family was sleeping in their Golden Eagle home when the brothers rang the doorbell and hurled fireworks through their window. It sparked a fire inside causing thousands of dollars in damage.

The teens' attorneys say it was a prank gone wrong and the family was not targeted.
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UPDATED 9.2.2011 7pm by Julie Montanaro

A Tallahassee family is still trying to recover from a 4th of July prank gone wrong. It's relieved that two neighborhood teens have been arrested, but scoff at the suggestion that it was an accident.

The Stouts say their lives been turned upside down since a firecracker came flying through the window and set their home office on fire.

They lived in a motel for more than a month and they still have trouble sleeping at night.

"The impact has been pretty tremendous on our kids. They can't be in a room alone. They won't walk down the hall at night without one another," John Stout said.

Thursday 14 and 16 year old brothers Christopher and Jonathan Howard were arrested and accused of felony criminal mischief. Their attorney says the boys meant to set off those fireworks in the sky, but the tube fell over and the fireworks wound up piercing the front window.

"It was just an unfortunate accident," Howard family attorney Lisa Hurley said.

"Did they know that family? Did they in any way target that family?"

"No they didn't. It was just a prank gone wrong," Hurley said.

"Do you buy their claim that this whole thing was an accident?" we asked the Stouts.

"No, based on the fact that they don't live on this street or anywhere near our house and it was 11:30 at night and did purposely ring our doorbell and based on the claim that they accidentally tipped this thing over or whatever in the street which is clearly half a football field from the window it went through ... it's not possible. It just sounds to me that it was intentional."

The Stouts say the price tag for repairs has topped $100,000 dollars.

The Howard brothers have their first court date September 27th.

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UPDATED 9-1-2011 10:07pm by Donnitra Gilbert

"Someone could have been killed, someone could have been killed without a doubt," says Victim Sarah Stout.

Sarah Stout gave WCTV an interview back in June of 2011, just hours after fireworks went flying through the window of her Golden Eagle Home.

Since that time, the Stouts and police have been trying to figure out who did it. On Thursday, September 1st, the young men involved in the 'prank' turned themselves in.

"There were some juveniles doing pranks in the neighborhood," says Leon County Sheriff's Office Spokesperson James McQuaig.

Deputies tell us 16-year-old Jonathan Howard and his 14-year-old brother Christoper Howard, are both charged with felony criminal mischief.

The young men are the sons of prominent Tallahassee attorney, Tim Howard. But the attorney for the family says it was an accident.

"The Howard brothers voluntarily went down to the Leon County Sheriff's Office and let the law enforcement know their involvement in the activity, it was just an unfortunate accident," says Howard's Attorney Lisa Hurley.

Deputies say the fireworks set fire to curtains and a couch inside the Stouts home, damage that's cost them ten of thousands of dollars.

There's no word on whether the teens will have to pay the Stouts back for the damage.

The teens have already been booked and released. Their first court date is September 27th.
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UPDATED 9.1.2011 6:30pm by Julie Montanaro

An attorney for the Howard brothers says this whole thing was an accident. Lisa Hurley says the Stout family was not targeted in any way and the fireworks that exploded in their home were meant to explode in the sky.

"The firework was actually put in a tube and before it ignited, the tube fell over, aiming towards the house. One of the brothers tried to get the tube back up before it ignited but he couldn't get to it in time," Hurley said.

Hurley says the teens have already been booked and released. Their first court date is September 27th at10am.
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UPDATE 9-1-2011

Tallahassee, FL - The teenagers accused of shooting fireworks into a Golden Eagle home have just been arrested.

Jonathan Howard, 16, and Christopher Howard, 14, turned themselves in around 4:00pm this afternoon. They are charged with felony criminal mischief.

Deputies say back in June, John and Sarah Stout were sleeping at their home when the brothers rang the doorbell and fireworks soared through their window. It sparked a fire inside.

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UPDATE 9-1-2011 by Julie Montanaro

Tallahassee, FL - Authorities tell WCTV that two teenagers have turned themselves in to the Juvenile Assessment Center for a fireworks attack on a Golden Eagle home.

The fireworks attack happened in late June (2011) and caused more than 20-thousand dollars worth of damages.

The names nor the exact ages of those involved have been released.

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UPDATED 6.28.2011 6:30pm by Julie Montanaro

A Tallahassee family is shocked and furious after someone flung fireworks through their front window.

It started a fire in the house and forced them to grab their sleeping kids and get out.

The Stouts were asleep Monday night at 11:30 when someone rang the doorbell and lobbed a terrifying surprise through the front window of their Golden Eagle home.

"I heard glass shatter and a whistle and explosion inside the house ... that of like a fourth of July firework," Sarah Stout said.

A scorched mattress and pillows litter the front lawn and just take a look inside at the family's home office. Melted blinds. A singed lamp shade. 20-thousand in damage. And a father's worst nightmare ... trying to get his two young children out of the house in the middle of the night.

"It's just like, you'll never quite sleep the same knowing that it was arson," John Stout said.

The Stouts say investigators retrieved fireworks from their home.

Investigators with the state fire marshal's office have ruled it arson.
They joined deputies going door to door looking for leads.

"It was clearly in my mind a prank where it was like a prank gone bad maybe. Thought they ... a kid just thinking they were being funny not realizing what the aftermath could have been," Sarah Stout said. "It's got to stop. Someone could have been killed. Someone could have been killed. Without a doubt."

The Stouts don't have any reason to believe their home was targeted.

Anyone with information is asked to call the state arson hotline at 1-877-NO-ARSON.

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UPDATED 6.28.2011 4:15pm by Julie Montanaro

The state fire marshals office has officially deemed this fire an arson.

Anyone with information is asked to call the state hotline at 1-877-NO- ARSON.
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[UPDATE] 6-28 1:48pm - LCSO PRESS RELEASE

At approximately 11:30 p.m. on June 27, 2011, the Leon County Sheriff’s Office and the Tallahassee Fire Department responded to 2998 Golden Eagle Drive in reference to a house fire. Deputies and
Firefighters arrived and discovered a portion of the residence smoldering. The remaining indicators of fire were extinguished; however, approximately $20,000.00 in damage was done to the home.

Homeowners told deputies, firefighters and investigators with the State Fire Marshal’s Office that the family was asleep in the upstairs portion of the residence when they heard the doorbell ring. Before homeowners could get down the stairs, they heard glass break, a bang and then saw fire in a front room. The homeowners were able to get all family members out of the house safely. Arson investigators with the Tallahassee Fire Department responded to the scene and recovered forensic evidence which will be analyzed by the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Investigators said the fire was contained primarily in one room of the residence.

This investigation is being worked as a joint arson investigation by the Leon County Sheriff’s Office, the Tallahassee Fire Department and the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

Anyone with information about this incident is asked to contact LCSO at (850) 922-3300, TFD at (850) 891-6600 or the State Fire Marshal’s Arson Tip Hotline at 1-877-NO-ARSON (or 1-877-662-7766).

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Tallahassee, Florida - June 28, 2011 - by Julie Montanaro

A family living in the Golden Eagle subdivision got a terrifying surprise late last night when vandals broke a window and tossed fireworks into their home. It set their furniture and curtains on fire.

The homeowners tell us that last night (June 27) at about 11:30 someone rang the doorbell of their home. They then heard shattering glass and an explosion.

The Stouts say someone threw fireworks through the window of their home office, igniting curtains and furniture in the room.

The couple scrambled to get their sleeping children and two dogs out of the house and tried to fight the fire with a hose until firefighters got there.

Damage was confined to that one room and Mrs. Stout says she is thankful a closet full of pictures in the room was spared.

The Stouts believe it was a prank, not any kind of targeted attack, but say someone could have been killed.

Investigators with the Tallahassee Fire Department, the state Fire Marshals Office and Leon County deputies are canvassing the area to see if the neighbors have any information about the incident.

Stay with WCTV for details.


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Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
  • by Resident Location: Golden Eagle on Jun 2, 2012 at 07:26 AM
    Typical excuses for these kids..."A prank gone wrong" children could have died because of this so called prank. The Police do not come into this neihborhood and the teens know it. Thus we have this kind of behavior.
  • by Resident on May 17, 2012 at 11:38 AM
    These 2 got sentenced today, hope they got what they earned. Now maybe their parents will learn to raise them instead of let them run wild. They DO NOT attend school regularly, they are pampered and spoiled. the parents need to have been raised better to have hope for the kids to have a chance. BE BETTER A PARENT IF YOU WANT BETTER CHILDREN!!
  • by Bear on Apr 18, 2012 at 07:44 PM
    If you all actually think these young men did this purposely then there is something wrong with you.Everyone makes mistakes and this you can tell was a prank gone wrong.
  • by Terri on Apr 14, 2012 at 07:52 PM
    Felons, Arsonist, great kids. Parents denying they did anything wrong, no wonder the kids turned out like this. No responsibility for your actions. They got caught, they have been found guilty, shut up and admit your children did this intentionally.
    • reply
      by LMAO on Apr 15, 2012 at 12:42 AM in reply to Terri
      I bet you are a great parent who has raised angels that never make mistakes. Sorry you are jealous these people have money, feeling sorry for yourself is a terrible feeling.
  • by Tallahassee Resident on Apr 14, 2012 at 05:31 PM
    Hey, WCTV, the real news story here is that these two boys may very well be the first juveniles that Judge Gievers has found to be guilty of a felony since she took the bench.
    • reply
      by TruthBeTold on Apr 15, 2012 at 07:51 AM in reply to Tallahassee Resident
      Maybe they are the first two who were in fact guilty. So what's your point?
      • reply
        by Angry Pirate on Apr 15, 2012 at 03:35 PM in reply to TruthBeTold
        Yeah, right. Two guilty defendants in over a year? How about the ones that confessed in court that she STILL found not guilty? Her agenda and refusal to hold juveniles accountable actually hurts them as a whole because they are being direct filed in adult court because nothing will happen to them in juvenile court. This needs to be investigated and reported!
      • reply
        by Bobby on Apr 16, 2012 at 05:13 AM in reply to TruthBeTold
        Truth be told: LOL
      • reply
        by Sal on Apr 17, 2012 at 07:58 PM in reply to TruthBeTold
        I bet you look at the felony arrest mug pics and think "how can I help these poor people...they are SO misunderstood."
  • by TC Location: tally on Apr 14, 2012 at 12:28 PM
    Charge all adults for using "weapons" or fireworks? You must be a nun or a monk because if your an American you have played or shot fireworks it is a form of celebration. Everyone will still use the fireworks if they are left over on any given day. This was a mistake made by two young kids playing a joke and it going really wrong. Should they be punished yes in some way but not charged with arson. That will cause them to be denied many things in life whether it be schooling or their future career. I am only 20 but now days everyone is cracking down on the younger generations everything most of you older folks did when ya'll were kids is either illegal or highly frowned apon. Give these kids a break like someone stated if they wanted to burn the house down on purpose they would not have knocked on the door. Even if they were playing a practical joke, I bet if you ask those boys if they would have lit the fireworks and it would have shot through the window and they would not have been playing their joke they would have probably went and rang the doorbell to try and help maybe even save the familys life. Like i said I'm still young but I feel sorry for our younger kids because like I said everything is illegal.
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Apr 15, 2012 at 08:10 AM in reply to TC
      These kids are habitual trouble makers, this was not a prank gone bad. They have been suspects in other vandalism in the area and the parents keep denying the their children are capable.
      • reply
        by ??? on Apr 16, 2012 at 03:12 AM in reply to
        Capable or "culpable?" All kids are capable. Still, got to agree with the other post...kids need punishment in order NOT to break the law. They do NOT need a pat on the hand. If we want to STOP crime and change the kids, maybe it's time for a new judge.
  • by rrrrr on Apr 14, 2012 at 12:18 PM
    When I was a young kid [bout 16 years ago] my friend and I were lighting off fireworks on the 4th of July in the middle of a very remote road. We put the bottle rockets in a glass coke bottle, put the bottle on its side facing the road, and watched the bottle rockets skip along the road. Well, the one time the bottle rolled and it aimed the rocket directly at the neighbors house and the rocket hit their window. Thank GOD they were only "whistlers" and there was 0 damage. But, the point is if we were using heavy duty stuff it may have smashed through the window and caused a fire. Young an dumb...
  • by Anon Location: Tallahassee on Apr 14, 2012 at 09:31 AM
    On June 28th Julie Montanaro reported that "vandals" broke a window and threw in fireworks. There is a big difference if the boys purposely broke the window in order to toss in lit fireworks or if they lit fireworks way back on the road and then the fireworks somehow managed to topple over and from that distance go straight to a window, break it, and then start the fire. I don't know if they were able to tell how the window was broken---by the boys or by the fireworks? If they broke the window, struck a match, lit fireworks, and tossed them into the house then their actions clearly meet the definition of arson. If they were lighting fireworks on the side of the road and it went towards the house and through a window it would seem to be more of a stupid, stupid, stupid prank gone very bad. Obviously, there is a HUGE discrepancy in the two versions and, honestly, the boys version has a high improbability factor----doesn't mean it couldn't have happened that way but the sheriff's office, the fire Marshall's office that originally ruled the fire arson, and the judge did not believe the evidence supported the boys story.
  • by Michael Location: Tallahassee on Apr 14, 2012 at 06:43 AM
    While the fire may have been accidental these boys should still be held responsible for their actions. Period
    • reply
      by MaryE on Apr 15, 2012 at 04:38 AM in reply to Michael
      Whom paid for the damages to the home? did the owners of the home have file a compliant with thier Insurance or parents insurance? did the young children need medical care after this prank so many questions and no answers. Take responsible for this and LEARN but please don't become LAWyErS there are TOOO MANY already as you know since mom and dad are ones and have no time for you both
  • by Miss Swan on Apr 14, 2012 at 06:15 AM
    Around Killearn, it's mostly grownup boys setting these explosives off on holidays. I'm talking 35 year olds. I've found spent rockets that hit the side of my house on occasion.
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