As a pair of 13-year-old boys await arraignment on murder charges in the deaths of two firefighters who were killed battling an arson blaze that destroyed a rural California town's library, outrage has erupted in the community over state laws barring the prosecution of the juveniles in adult court.
The tragedy has left residents of Porterville, a town of roughly 60,000 in California's Central San Joaquin Valley, grieving over the deaths of Capt. Raymond Figueroa and firefighter Patrick Jones, and angry that the two young suspects could face as little as 10 years in a juvenile facility if convicted.
“Even if we are not big fans of the law, we still have to follow it,” Porterville Police Chief Eric Kroutil said at a news conference announcing the arrests of the juvenile suspects.
The suspects, whose names have not been released, were each charged with murder on Friday for allegedly setting the fire that destroyed the town's 67-year-old library and ended up killing Jones and Figueroa when they rushed inside the burning structure to search for victims.
In an unusual move, Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward released a video statement before the charges were even filed to explain the "significant limitation" his office faces in prosecuting the boys in the California juvenile justice system.
"I know it may be frustrating, but 13-year-olds cannot be tried as adults in California, even for crimes such as murder," Ward said in his statement. "I'm certain this information may be met with outrage. This is why myself, and many district attorney's across the state were against these changes to the law."
"When criminal justice reform advocates and legislators consider the mistakes that juveniles often make, I suspect they're talking about shoplifting and beer runs," Ward added. "Nevertheless, justice reform holds consequences and today we may be witnesses to that."
He said legislation signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown not only eliminated the ability to prosecute offenders as old as 15 in adult court, but it also put severe limitations on the punishment that can be doled out.
"In any juvenile case in this state, even if the most serious charges of murder are filed and found to be true, 13-year-olds cannot be held in custody once they reach the age of 25. That is simply the law of Califonia," Ward said. "Not surprisingly, current law drops that age to 23 for many crimes we all consider to be serious and violent."
Ward added that a law that went into effect on Jan. 1 changes the state's felony murder rule to further limit the criminal exposure for suspects of dangerous felonies, who are not the actual killer or who did not act with the intent to kill.
"As we move forward, know this: My office will be dogged in the pursuit of justice for the destruction of the Porterville library and the tragic deaths of two brave firemen," Ward said. "But as we do so, we will be constrained within the parameters of the law and I will also be limited from sharing with you legally enough information."
The deadly fire broke out inside the 18,000-square-foot library around 4:14 p.m. on Feb. 18, officials said.
Jones, 25, and Figueroa, 35, were part of the Engine 71 crew that was first to arrive on the scene as heavy smoke poured from inside the library, officials said. Uncertain that everyone was evacuated, the two firefighters entered the burning building to search for victims. Shortly after they radioed a "mayday" call from inside.
Figueroa was quickly found by a search crew and removed from the burning structure, authorities said. But heavy flames and the collapsing roof of the building forced rescuers to retreat before they could find Jones.
Capt. Figueroa died at a hospital while Jones' body wasn't recovered until early the next morning, officials said.
Porterville Police Chief Eric Kroutil said investigators were told by witnesses that two boys were seen running from the library as the fire erupted. He said the two suspects were quickly tracked down and arrested.
"Our investigation determined that these two juveniles did start the fire intentionally," Kroutil said.
Kroutil, like prosecutors, said new laws protecting juvenile suspects made the investigation "challenging."
"Once we determined that they were suspects in the crime, there was no more questioning for the juveniles," Kroutil said. "We have to rely on other investigative means to confirm their involvement."
The suspects are being held at a juvenile facility and are expected to be arraigned in juvenile court on March 11.
"In my opinion, if this were 17-year-olds then they would be tried as adults in criminal court and facing extremely lengthy prison terms," Kroutil said. "That's not going to happen in this case. By law, it cannot."
Local residents took to social media to vent their frustrations at the state's criminal justice system.
"These boys should go to jail for life!!! Those boys knew what they did was wrong! No excuses!!" one local resident wrote on the Facebook page of the Visalia Times-Delta newspaper.
Another resident wrote, "They MURDERED 2 people. They are old enough to be held accountable and charged as adults. Period."
Michael Mendoza, national director of the criminal justice reform group #cut50 in Oakland, California, told the Washington Post that while he understands the outrage in Porterville, the laws were changed in California to protect young children.
“We still have the opportunity to intervene in and impact the lives of two 13-year-olds, who are kids,” Mendoza told The Post.
The families of Figueroa, a father of two children, and Jones, who was engaged to be married, released statements on Sunday focusing on how the men lived.
"Patrick was a shining light in this world and will continue to shine down on us from above," the statement released by Jones' family and fiancee reads.
Figueroa's family's statement recalled the captain's motto in life: “I am far from knowing it all, but I am driven to learn it all.”
"Although we are heartbroken, we find comfort knowing he died doing what he loved in the accompaniment of a fellow brother (his Jonesy)," the Figueroa family statement reads. "We are so proud of all he accomplished and he will always be our HERO."
"These past few days have been very difficult for our community," Porterville Mayor Martha Flores said Monday in a statement. "Though the City of Porterville has faced a horrific tragedy, I am confident in the resiliency and support of our community."