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Eagle Scout Brian Lenz Gets no Jail Time for Deadly "Ring of Fire": Prosecutors Have Wide Discretion in Charging Crimes and Making Deals

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By Admin on March 19, 2009 4:04 PM

Two words that probably don't get put together often in any word association game are "Scout" and "criminal". Fortunately for Brian Lenz, an Eagle Scout accused of aggravated assault stemming from a deadly trick-gone-wrong, it's going to stay that way for him. The AP reported today that Lenz "appeared in court Thursday to plead not guilty to aggravated assault and was admitted into a pretrial intervention program that will enable him to avoid jail time or even a criminal record."

The AP described the tragic incident which led to today's plea, stating that last year on a "hot July night at Boy Scout camp" at the Joseph A. Citta Reservation in Waretow, New Jersey, 18-year-old camp counselor Lenz:

"decided to show the younger boys a trick: the "circle of fire," in which he would squirt rubbing alcohol in a pattern on a table and set it aflame.

It would look cool. And it would quickly burn out.

When Lenz tried to reignite what he thought was a dying flame, fire leapt from the table along the stream of liquid, back into the squeeze bottle he was holding.

Instinctively, he shook his hand, flinging the burning bottle away and inadvertently spraying flaming alcohol onto the other scouts..."

One of the three Scouts burned, 17-year-old Sean Whitley, died four days later, while the other two recovered from their injuries. Lenz, however, ended up in serious legal trouble, sued by Whitley's family and also criminally prosecuted for his actions. However, the end result in this case might have some wondering why authorities even bothered pursuing Lenz criminally, considering the circumstances.

Prosecutors have wide discretion as to the extent to which they charge, prosecute, and/or make deals with individuals suspected of criminal offenses. However, in this case Executive Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Michael A. Paulhus indicated they only took the route of the pre-trial intervention (PTI) program after the prosecution "...spoke extensively with the victim's parents and they agreed to this disposition".

The Asbury Park Press story continued, "[h]ad the Whitley family not agreed with Lenz's admittance to the PTI program, Paulhus said, his office was prepared to seek a criminal indictment from a grand jury." Although most people picture assault as an intentional crime, one law firm's site outlines New Jersey's aggravated assault statute and explains the varieties of assaults included. Noteably, under the state's aggravated assault statute, a person can be guilty of third degree aggravated assault in a variety of ways including when in "under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life [he] recklessly causes such significant bodily injury" or also if he "[c]auses bodily injury by knowingly or purposely starting a fire".

Going back to the Eagle Scout's case, as noted by Paulhus, "[t]he Boy Scouts of America have long-standing and effective policies ... The situation that took place was kids doing what kids weren't supposed to be doing." Fortunately for Brian Lenz, successful completion of the PTI program will allow him a second chance at moving on without a criminal record.