News10NBC Investigates: Arson Attack—How does justice not warrant jail?

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Eighteen months after an explosion outside the home of a Monroe County Sheriff’s deputy, a plea deal on the table will keep the man arrested for arson out of jail.

The deal worked out by the district attorney’s office, the judge and the defense team means the defendant will plead guilty to a reduced arson charge, get probation, pay restitution but not go to jail.

It was July 2020. A Ring camera in a neighborhood in the Town of Clarkson shows a truck circling a house after dark like it was casing the place. Then the explosion. The blast filled the camera’s lens with a brilliant white light.

As the fire grew, the video captures the same pickup truck putting its lights on and tearing out of the neighborhood.

The force of the blast woke up the neighborhood and the video captured those neighbors walking out of their homes to see what happened.

"Your home should be your sanctuary. It should be a safe place for you and your family and that’s been taken," Robert Davis said.

This is the first time Davis, a deputy in the Monroe County Jail, has spoken on camera about the attack on his property.

Davis was not targeted because he’s a sheriff’s deputy. He, the defense attorney and the DA’s office agree the incident was rooted in a long-simmering and contentious dispute with a former family member.

In September, 15 months after the explosion, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office arrested a man unrelated to Davis and not directly involved in the dispute and charged him with third-degree arson, a felony that gets one to 15 years in prison.

Later in the fall, a plea offer from the DA’s office reduced the crime to a misdemeanor.

After Davis objected, the DA’s office increased the deal to include fourth-degree arson, a felony. But that is lower than the charge levied by the sheriff’s office and the deal still includes probation, not jail.

Davis: "The latest story, it is based on the fact that he doesn’t have a criminal history and his age. They feel jail time is not warranted. This is about the third different story we’ve gotten, so."

Brean: "The other ones included that he was drunk."

Davis: "Correct."

Brean: "Do you have any say in this? You are the victim here."

Davis: "I mean if we were talking about a case of beer being stolen, that’s a little bit different than blowing up two vehicles and torching a house of someone that you’ve never met."

Davis says his family is still afraid.

"My two stepdaughters essentially still, we are a year and a half removed from the situation, struggle with going upstairs in the house," he said. "Even if it’s during the day sometimes they still get scared."

Davis and his family were driving to a vacation at the time. But his mother was in his house the night of the explosion. His car caught fire and Davis says she has trouble sleeping now.

Brean: "Have you shared that with the district attorney’s office?"

Davis: "I’ve been crystal clear."

Monday, we sat down with District Attorney Sandra Doorley.

Brean: "If you look at that Ring camera video of the explosion, how does that not warrant some jail time?"

Doorley: "Well I haven’t looked at it myself. I’m relying on the assistant DA who handled the case and my first assistant. Based on all the evidence we have at our disposal and possible motive here, we believe this plea offer is appropriate."

District Attorney Doorley said the defendant does not have a criminal record and does have a job and Doorley says they listened to Robert Davis and that’s why they changed the plea to include a felony.

"We listened to his concerns. And the concerns went right up to my first assistant and based on his concerns we changed the offer to a felony plea, a Class E felony to arson in the 4th degree," Doorley said. "We did listen to him. We listened to a lot of what he has to say. And based upon that, that’s why we believe this plea is appropriate."

Brean: "And everyone has signed off on this. Your office, the judge, defense counsel. You all agree so far."

Doorley: "That’s correct. The judge has signed off on it. Defense counsel has signed off on it. My first assistant and I have signed off on it."

Brean: "Just not the victim in the case."

Doorley: "That is correct."

I asked the district attorney if victims of crime in this county have any say in punishment against the defendant in that alleged crime.

"With each and every case that comes across our desks whether it be a violation, whether it be a misdemeanor, whether it be a felony, we speak to the victims. We talk about possible pleas. We talk about possible sentences," Doorley said. "Do we listen to them? Most of the time we do. But we have a lot to weigh. We have to weigh the interests of public safety and society and whether or not it really is appropriate. To put it simply, we have to look at each and every case on its own merits."

Davis shared an email, where in December the prosecutor told Davis the deal was "carefully considered and what I think is in the interest of justice."

We tried to find out how many people are in New York State prison for arson third or fourth degree. The Department of Corrections told me there are 149 inmates serving time for first and second degree arson but said if we wanted numbers on third and fourth degree arson we would have to submit a Freedom of Information request. I did that on Jan. 25. As of Monday, Corrections has not provided the data.

"To be told we’re going to reduce the charge by the district attorney’s office just to keep this guy out of jail, it’s not okay," Davis said. "It’s not okay for my family. It’s not okay for my stepdaughters, it’s not okay for my sons. It’s not okay for my Mom. It’s not okay for our community."

The plea deal was scheduled to happen in court on Wednesday. Because of a scheduling conflict, it was moved to March 2.

The defendant’s lawyer told me his client is remorseful.