Jurors deadlock in hospital arson trial

Julio Cesar Lopez, 38, accused of setting hospital bed fire at D.R.M.C. in 2011

INDIO, Calif. - With jurors deadlocked, a mistrial was declared Thursday in the trial of a Cathedral City man accused of setting his hospital bed on fire because he was angry he wasn't allowed to smoke in the emergency room.

Prosecutors said they plan to retry Julio Cesar Lopez, 38, who is charged with one felony count of property arson for the fire he allegedly set on May 24, 2011, at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs.

Jurors began deliberating Tuesday afternoon, and announced Thursday they were split nine to three in favor of guilt. A trial-readiness conference is scheduled for Tuesday as the process
begins to try the case again with a different jury, according to Deputy District Attorney Steve Morgan.

According to the prosecution, Lopez became ``aggressive'' toward hospital staff when he was told he couldn't smoke in the emergency room. He was put in a locked exam room, and a short time later an employee looked through the window and saw that the bed was on fire.

``He gets mad -- `I'll show you' -- and he gets back at them by setting the bed on fire ... he said he set the fire because they wouldn't let him smoke,'' Morgan told jurors in his closing argument on Tuesday. He said Lopez came to the hospital voluntarily and could have left if he didn't like the rules, but chose to stay.

``He said, `I was mad, it was my fault,' not `I was scared, I was locked in,''' the prosecutor said. He said Lopez told an investigator he was mad even after a Benadryl shot he was given made him drowsy. The defendant used business cards ``to get the fire going'' with a lighter, and there was no evidence it started another way, such as a dropped cigarette, the prosecutor alleged.

Morgan also told jurors that there was no pounding on the door before the non-injury fire began, and no evidence that the door to the room was locked.

Defense attorney Dante Gomez argued that a nurse got annoyed because Lopez wanted to go outside to smoke, so she locked him in the room and told him he had to ``behave in order to earn privileges.'' He said Lopez came to the hospital to be treated for anxiety.

``It sounds to me like someone was upset with someone and locked them in for punishment -- that's false imprisonment,'' he said in his closing argument.

Gomez said employees didn't recall being threatened, and did hear pounding on the door.

``The government wants you to believe this was a malicious act by Mr. Lopez ... these are the acts of a person trapped in that room trying to get out,'' the defense attorney said. He said Lopez was trying to get out ``and something goes wrong.'' He said the prosecution didn't prove ``any malice was done by the patient at the time, Mr. Lopez, when the fire was set.''

He also argued that hospital staff didn't act consistently with someone who was a threat -- they didn't search Lopez, and no one watched him after he was put in the room.

Claudia Lopez told City News Service that her brother has a history of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia that surfaced when he was a teenager. She said he had been in and out of hospitals, and had taken medication in the past.

``He doesn't have malice, he's a good person,'' she said. ``He's had a hard life.''

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