Sentence reduction denied for Detroit arsonist, FF killer

He was convicted of paying an employee $20 to burn an ex-girlfriend's house; the firefighter died in a roof collapse


By Elisha Anderson
The Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — A judge told a man convicted of murder and arson in connection with the 2008 fire that killed Detroit firefighter Walter Harris that society has a duty to protect first responders then sentenced him to spend 41  1/2  to 62  1/2  years in prison.

"If society does not uphold that duty, society is risking self-destruction," Wayne County Circuit Judge Michael Callahan said. "Not only do I agree that society has the duty to protect firefighters, police officers and EMS, I adopt that duty as my own."

Mario Willis received the same sentence he got in 2010 after testimony that he paid a man $20 to set fire to a house owned by his then-girlfriend. He was convicted of second-degree murder and arson and appeared in court again today because the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered him to be re-sentenced.

Harris died trying to put out the fire when the roof collapsed. The man convicted of setting the fire, Darian Dove, was sentenced in 2010 to 17-30 years in prison as part of a plea agreement.

Harris' widow, Syri Harris, wiped tears as Battalion Chief Steven Kirschner took the stand and read the names of 20 firefighters that were at the scene of the fatal fire that day, including senior firefighter Harris.

"It's hurtful and a slap in the face to be here again six years later," she told the court.

She also said she agreed with original sentence, which was upheld today.

Callahan had ordered Willis to 41  1/2  to 62  1/2  years on the second-degree murder charge, with about 10 to 20 years for arson, ordering him to serve both sentences at the same time back in 2010.

But Willis appealed, and the Michigan Court of Appeals sent the case back to Callahan for re-sentencing saying he did not justify why he exceeded the sentencing guidelines in the case.

"I find that the death of Walter Harris or any other firefighter at the scene was foreseeable," Callahan said. "The defendant clearly knew that the house ...h ad been severely damaged by a prior fire."

Willis' defense attorney, Craig Daly, asked Callahan to consider his client's post-sentencing rehabilitation and conduct and said Willis is a model inmate and his lack of criminal history, which consists of a one additional misdemeanor conviction in 2002.

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Robert Stevens argued the guidelines do not property reflect the sentence he should get and said he had a "cold, callous, financially driven motive."

A few dozen firefighters along with Harris' widow packed the courtroom today. Outside the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, two rescue squads were parked along with a ladder truck.

Harris said she was glad to be surrounded by her family and her fire department brothers and sisters after the hearing.

"It's been traumatic," she said. "My six boys have been through a lot. We just continue to focus on the vision my husband had for our family and we just keep moving forward."

She said she doesn't feel Willis has accepted responsibility for his part in what happened.

"It sucks that we had to be here," Kirschner said. "It sucks for them (Harris' family) that they had to come and relive this over again. But, hopefully we've put a fork in it now and we won't have to look at this for another 20 years."

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(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press

Distributed by MCT Information Services

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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