Charges dropped against 2 youths in Tennessee wildfires

Fire erupts on both side of Highway 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. In Gatlinburg, smoke and fire caused the mandatory evacuation of downtown and surrounding areas, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. (Jessica Tezak/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Two juveniles are no longer charged with starting the Tennessee wildfires that killed 14 people in November, a law enforcement official said Friday.

Prosecutors can’t prove the youth were responsible because there were other factors contributing to the fire’s seriousness, such as 80-mph (130-kph) winds and downed power lines that ignited flames, District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn said in a statement.

In December, Dunn announced charges of aggravated arson against the juveniles in connection with a fire in the Chimney Tops area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park that blew into Gatlinburg, ravaging the vacation town. The juveniles are from Tennessee, but not Sevier County, where the fires spread, Dunn has said.

“Because of this intervening weather event, the state is unable to prove the criminal responsibility of the two juveniles beyond a reasonable doubt for the devastation that occurred outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Dunn said.

Attorney Gregory P. Isaacs, who represented one of the boys charged, said Friday that the evidence showed the juveniles didn’t cause the death and devastation.

He said the prosecution showed good judgment by dropping the charges after what appeared to be an “unfortunate rush to judgment.”

“Imagine, you are a young adolescent and you are accused of committing one of the most heinous crimes in East Tennessee,” Isaacs said at a news conference Friday. “But they’ve been very strong throughout this process.”

Dunn also cited jurisdiction issues. Any future decision about whether to charge the youths with setting the fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is now up to the U.S. Department of Justice, he said.

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