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.

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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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