Federal Appeals Court throws out conviction for burning of federal Nantahala forest

Image by fancycrave1 from Pixabay

Listen to this story (7 minutes)

  • The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the conviction of a man charged with burning 70 acres of the Nantahala National Forest in 2020.
  • Appellate judges agreed Casey Lee Evans should have been able to present evidence during his trial that he believed he had set the fire on his own family's land.
  • The unanimous opinion determined that the government needed to prove Evans acted "willlfully" to violate the federal law against burning government-owned land.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has tossed out the conviction of a man who burned 70 acres of the Nantahala National Forest in 2020. Appellate judges agreed the man should have been able to argue that he believed he was on his own property.

A federal jury convicted Casey Lee Evans in January 2022 of “willfully and without authority” setting fire to “any timber, underbrush, or grass or other inflammable material … upon any lands owned or leased by … the United States.” He was sentenced to time served, plus two years of supervised release.

Appellate judges agreed Tuesday that the federal law in question, Section 1855, did not require the government to prove Evans knew he was setting fire to federal land. But U.S. Chief District Judge Martin Reidinger should have allowed Evans to present evidence that he believed he was on his family’s property when he set the fire, according to the unanimous 4th Circuit opinion.

“Evans asserts his innocence, claiming he did not act with a culpable mental state because he thought he was setting the fire on his family’s land, not on federal government property,” wrote Judge Allison Jones Rushing.

“We conclude that specific knowledge of federal ownership is not required for conviction,” Rushing wrote. “Therefore, the Government did not have to prove that Evans knew he was on federal land or intended to burn federal land. But the Government did have to prove that Evans acted willfully, and an honest mistake of fact about whether he was burning brush on his own property would be a viable defense.”

“The district court excluded testimony about Evans’s belief that he was on his family’s property when he set the fire, thereby preventing him from presenting his primary defense to the jury. We therefore vacate his conviction and remand for further proceedings,” the 4th Circuit ruling continued.

Rushing detailed evidence Evans tried to use to help his case. “Outside the jury’s presence, Evans proffered testimony that he believed he was on his family’s land when he assembled the brush pile and set it on fire,” she wrote. “Evans explained his family’s long ownership of property abutting the Nantahala National Forest and his understanding of the boundary lines based on certain markers on the property.”

“Relative to those boundaries, Evans proffered, he believed that he was on family land when he set the fire,” according to the opinion. “The court excluded Evans’s testimony about his belief as irrelevant because Section 1855’s jurisdictional element contains no scienter requirement. The court also rejected Evans’s attempt to offer testimony limited to the fact of certain boundary markers, which the court concluded would confuse the jury and impermissibly blur the lines between lay and expert testimony.”

Without a ”scienter” requirement, the government did not need to prove that Evans knew he set fire to federal land. That’s not the end of the story.

“Just because the Government did not need to prove that Evans knew he was on federal land when he set the fire, however, did not make his knowledge irrelevant,” Rushing wrote. “A defendant’s mistake of fact concerning the location of the fire and his authorization to set it can in some circumstances cast a reasonable doubt on whether he acted willfully.”

Evans should have been allowed to present a defense that he made a mistake about ownership of the land, appellate judges agreed.

“The mistake-of-fact defense is available to defendants charged under Section 1855,” Rushing wrote. “The statute requires that a defendant set the fire ‘willfully,’ which ‘denote[s] a mental state of greater culpability than the closely related term, “knowingly.”’ A defendant may attempt to negate the willfulness element by showing that he mistakenly believed he was not on federal land and had authorization to set the fire.”

“A sufficiently strong showing could convince a factfinder that the defendant reasonably but incorrectly believed that his conduct was lawful and that he did not carelessly disregard whether he had the right to set the fire — in other words, that he acted without criminally culpable intent,” the 4th Circuit opinion added. “This is especially true when a defendant mistakenly, but reasonably, believes he is on his own property, because setting a fire on one’s own property is not generally unlawful.”

“[W]e conclude that the district court made an error of law when it excluded Evans’s proffered testimony on the ground that his ‘subjective belief’ about whether he was on his family’s property when he set the fire was inadmissible for any purpose ‘because it’s not relevant to the issues in this case,’” Rushing wrote.

The trial judge did not “account for the possibility that a defendant may attempt to prove a factual mistake to undermine the Government’s proof of willfulness,” appellate judges determined. “Instead, the court excluded Evans’s testimony as irrelevant to disproving the federal-ownership element.”

“The excluded testimony was Evans’s primary defense,” Rushing concluded. “If credited by the jury, the testimony would have squarely raised the issue of whether he made a factual mistake sufficient to cast a reasonable doubt on the willfulness of his actions in setting the fire.”

“The jury, not this Court, must assess the credibility of the proffered testimony and weigh it against the Government’s evidence to make that judgment,” she wrote.

Judges Steven Agee and Marvin Quattlebaum joined Rushing’s opinion.