Sifton teen guilty of setting his home on fire

Judge finds that he formed intent despite suffering traumatic brain injury

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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Alex Michael Smith suffered a traumatic brain injury eight days before he allegedly burned his family's house down in May 2011.

The question before a Clark County judge on Wednesday: Did the Sifton teenager's brain injury prevent him from forming the legal intent to commit first-degree arson?

Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis said the evidence was clear: Smith acted "knowingly and maliciously."

"He intended to do it," the judge said. "He was aware his actions were going to cause the fire."

After hearing testimony in the daylong trial, Lewis found Smith, now 17, guilty of first-degree arson. The teen will be sentenced on Oct. 2.

In juvenile court, judges, not juries, decide a defendant's fate.

The judge heard testimony that Smith allegedly set the fire after fetching a gas can from an outside shed and pouring the flammable liquid into a cup to bring inside the house. Then, he dumped the gas into a recycling bin, igniting the fire.

Firefighters responded the morning of May 13, 2011, to the house in the 8500 block of Northeast 129th Avenue. The house was destroyed; Smith, his two siblings and his mother escaped safely.

Smith's mother, Patricia Smith, testified that her son had started acting strangely after he suffered a brain injury during P.E. class. He had been elbowed in the eye. After treatment at a hospital, he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.

"Is it safe to say he was having problems in those eight days that weren't normal?," defense attorney Jon McMullen asked.

"Oh yeah," Patricia Smith said.

She said her son first suffered headaches and nausea and then began having mood swings. One day, he was joyful, elated and talkative; the next day, he was overly emotional.

The morning of the fire, the mother said, he was at first euphoric and then grumpy. The two had gotten into an argument, and after Patricia Smith left the house that morning, she got a phone call from her son.

He asked her to apologize, but she didn't, insisting that he should apologize. "You'll be sorry," he responded.

Patricia Smith rushed back home to find the fire in the kitchen. Her son was standing near the fire. He had a blank look on his face, she said.

"He didn't want to leave," she said. "He kept saying, 'I'm just going to stay here for awhile.'"

She said she had to drag her son out of the house.

Testifying for the defense, Dr. Richard Konkol, who treated the teen, said Alex Smith's behavior leading up to the fire was clear evidence of the brain injury.

Because of the injury, Konkol said that while the teen understood the basics of setting a fire, he "didn't see the whole implication" of his actions.

That isn't an argument for diminished capacity, which is a legal defense meaning a person cannot form intent, said Kirk Johnson, a forensic psychologist who testified for Deputy Prosecutor Luka Vitasovic.

Johnson conceded that Alex Smith wasn't "operating on all cylinders," but said his actions showed he knew what he was doing, pointing out that the teen alerted his siblings to leave the house when the fire started.

The judge agreed, noting the teen had told deputies that he started the fire because of the argument with his mother. "He told people why he did what he did," Lewis said.

There wasn't a dispute that Alex Smith started the fire. "The only question is the intent involved," the judge said before explaining that evidence showed the teen acted deliberately.

Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts;www.facebook.com/reportermcvicker;laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.