Perhaps it was the sound of former Columbia firefighter-turned-arsonist Pierre Daye’s weeping children in the courtroom.
Perhaps it was testimony that Daye had lesions on his brain from an advancing case of multiple sclerosis.
Or perhaps it was that Daye himself, wobbling on a cane and choking back sobs, begged the judge for mercy.
In any event, Circuit Judge Robert Hood – who up to now in his judicial career has achieved a reputation for handing down tough but fair sentences – allowed Daye to avoid prison Thursday, instead giving him a 10-year suspended sentence.
Daye, 40, will have to serve 12 months on house arrest, followed by two years of probation. Daye can only leave home to go to church and visit doctors.
Earlier this week, Hood sentenced Daye’s accomplice – Salih Abdur-Rasheed, whosetestimony indicated he was prodded by Daye to start a fire at a Columbia duplex so Daye could get insurance proceeds – to five years in prison, on a charge of arson third degree.
Both men had pleaded guilty.
Mindful that his different treatment of two arsonists might attract scrutiny, Hood explained his reasons in open court for letting Daye avoid prison.
“You have abused a position of public trust and public confidence not only in the community but among firefighters, that tight-knit community” the public depends on to be first responders, Hood told Daye.
On the other hand, Hood said he was taking into consideration all the “good things” that Daye’s lawyer, Victor Li, pointed out early in Thursday’s hearing. Among them: Daye had no criminal record, had risked his life as a firefighter, had served in the Army National Guard, had worked as a nurse and had coached and mentored children.
Daye “had a life that was 99 percent good and 1 percent not,” Li told Hood. Li also offered medical evidence on the effects of multiple sclerosis on Daye, letting the judge know that Daye needs constant medical care.
A forensic psychiatrist testified that Daye was not a pyromaniac – someone who starts fires for the thrill of it.
Taking that prior record and Daye’s multiple sclerosis into consideration, along with the felony conviction for accessory before the fact of arson third degree “that will never be erased from your record,” Hood said he would not send Daye to prison.
Hood stressed that Abdur-Rasheed was far different from Daye.
Abdur-Rasheed “had a significant prior criminal history ... he had multiple prior felony convictions ... and had spent a good part of his adult life in and out of the criminal justice system,” Hood said.
Had Daye insisted on a trial, the Fifth Circuit Solicitor’s office had two witnesses ready to testify, one of whom was Abdur-Rasheed, that Daye was the instigator of a plot to start a fire in August 2011 in the kitchen of a duplex at 4315 Abingdon Road in Columbia. Abdur-Rasheed told Hood that Daye wanted the insurance proceeds from a fire, prosecutors said.
However, Daye told Hood Thursday it wasn’t his idea to start the fire – it was Abdur-Rasheed’s.
Earlier in the week, prosecutors said they had reached a negotiated plea with Abdur-Rasheed, in which he could get no more than five years for his part in the arson. Abdur-Rasheed admitted setting the fire. Hood gave him that five years.
Daye’s exposure to being an accessory before the fact of arson third degree was 15 years. Prosecutor Jennifer McKellar took no position on what sentence Hood should give.
During Abdur-Rasheed’s sentencing hearing earlier this week, deputy Columbia Fire Marshall Matt Lam spoke in open court, telling Hood that people’s lives were in jeopardy by Abdur-Rasheed’s and Daye’s act of arson.
A woman with two small children lived on the other side of the duplex, Lam said
“What would have happened if that woman had not left the house that night and her children had been there and the fire had not been contained?” Lam said.
“And they (Daye and Abdur-Rasheed) put 22 firefighters’ lives in jeopardy, responding to the scene. Not only that, they put the community in jeopardy by fire engines going down the road, lights and sirens, possible motor vehicle collisions, ” Lam said.
“We as fire investigators think of arson as a major crime,” Lam said.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.