A man who lit himself on fire while in police custody last spring has been acquitted of all but one of the criminal charges he faced in connection with that incident.
Judge Lisa M. Rau found Alex Torro not guilty of arson, causing a catastrophe and possession of an instrument of crime.
During a Feb. 13 hearing, Rau found Torro, 28, guilty of recklessly endangering another person as a result of his actions on April 11, 2002. His trial was held on Dec. 20, but Rau postponed sentencing because the prosecution disputed the defense claim that Torro should not face arson charges because lighting himself on fire did not meet the statutory definition of arson.
Rau instructed Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Bozzelli and defense lawyer Michael J. Diamondstein to file briefs with the court citing specific case law to support their respective stances.
Rau was swayed by Diamondstein’s argument that the definition of arson as a property crime did not apply to Torro because he lit only himself and caused no damage to the cell where he was being housed.
Bozzelli told the Times, “I couldn’t find anything to rebut that claim, but I do think that lighting oneself on fire while in a building creates the potential for arson.”
The defendant was scheduled to be sentenced last week, but the hearing was continued to April 3.
The charges Torro faced stemmed from the circumstances surrounding an alleged attempted rape and assault of two women while he was a boarder at a home on the 4700 block of Roosevelt Blvd.
On April 11, he allegedly asked the owner of the boarding home, a 52-year old woman, for sex. When she refused, said police, Torro, a native of Puerto Rico, tried to force himself on her. Hearing the commotion, police said, the woman’s 25-year-old daughter came to her mother’s rescue. Torro allegedly assaulted the young woman and then fled the home.
The women also left the property in search of medical attention.
While being treated for injuries at Episcopal Hospital, they alerted police to the incident. Officers who responded to the scene of the alleged assault apprehended Torro, who was spotted walking on a nearby street. He was taken to the police department’s special victims unit in the Arsenal Business Center in Bridesburg.
Police officers testified at his December trial that Torro used a book of matches concealed in the waistband of his underwear to ignite a fire that engulfed his clothing.
One officer suffered second-degree burns on his left hand while trying to extinguish the flames. A detective used a water-cooler jug to douse the blaze.
Torro was treated at Temple University Hospital for second-degree burns to his chest, back and arms. Rape charges against the defendant were dropped at a June 20 preliminary hearing because the victim of his alleged assault declined to testify against him in court.
Diamondstein, who said his client has a history of depression, praised Rau’s judgment.
“She is a careful and meticulous judge who wanted to make sure the law was clear about what constitutes arson. She did the right thing.”
By: Julian Walker