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Arson conviction overturned

By Staff | Sep 19, 2013

A man found guilty of setting his Cape Coral home on fire has had his conviction overturned.

A jury convicted Jesus Ventura Perez, 58, of first-degree arson dwelling building people present and burning to defraud insurer in November 2011. He was sentenced to just over three years in prison.

As of Thursday, Perez remained incarcerated at the Dade Correctional Institution.

In August, Judge Stevan Northcutt of the Florida 2nd District Court of Appeal released an opinion reversing Perez’s convictions on both charges. Two other appellate judges concurred with Northcutt.

“We agree that the evidence in this case was insufficient to prove that Perez set the fire,” he wrote.

On Monday, a mandate was issued to the 20th Judicial Circuit Court to follow the opinion.

“The case is a reversal,” Clerk of the Court James Birkhold, of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, said.

Attorneys Rene Suarez and Chris Brown represented Perez.

They could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The home, at 1818 N.E. 18th Ave., caught fire in June 2009. A local fire investigator documented damage from smoke and soot in various locations, but the kitchen sustained the most damage.

Perez told the State Fire Marshal’s Office that he fried eggs and potatoes in the morning, then left to visit a relative. When Perez returned home that afternoon, he found the home filled with smoke.

Perez tried to extinguish the flames with a garden hose, then asked a neighbor to call 911.

“Perez does not challenge the state’s proof that the fire was caused by arson. His point is that the state offered no evidence, direct or circumstantial, that Perez was the arsonist,” Northcutt’s opinion read.

The only testimony concerning Perez’s whereabouts around the time of the fire came from the neighbor, who testified that he had not paid attention to Perez’s comings or goings that day. No one took samples from Perez or his clothing, and no proof was offered that the house was locked.

Northcutt noted that the state presented no direct evidence of Perez’s guilt.

“If the circumstantial evidence furnishes only a suspicion of guilt, it is insufficient to prove arson,” he wrote. “The evidence must be of a conclusive nature leading to a reasonable certainty that the defendant, not anyone else, committed the arson.”

“The circumstantial evidence here was woefully insufficient to prove that Perez started the fire,” Northcutt added. “His convictions for both arson and burning to defraud an insurer cannot stand.”