Jim Porter: Bizarre ruling in murder-arson case (opinion) | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Jim Porter: Bizarre ruling in murder-arson case (opinion)

Jim Porter

You’ve heard the joke where the son kills his parents, then pleads leniency because he’s an orphan. Our case today is not much different.


Joson Vang and his cousin set out to burglarize houses in the Meadowview neighborhood in Sacramento. After an unsuccessful attempt to get into one house, they broke into Keith Fessler’s adjacent house.

They knocked loudly, did not receive a response and believing no one was home, entered the house through a sliding glass door and began searching for property to steal.

The two burglars had masks but cousin Ronnie Vang was not wearing his. To their surprise, Fessler came out of his bedroom and confronted them. He pleaded for his life but cousin Ronnie killed him — because he could be identified. That’s a good reason.

After murdering Fessler, they stole his guitars and windsurfing boards and drove away in his SUV. Later they returned to the house, lit gasoline and burned it down, then torched Fessler’s SUV.

‘We’re Just Thugs’

Not being the brightest bulbs, Joson Vang and cousin Ronnie told their friends they’d murdered a guy and burned down his house. Then they attempted to pawn the stolen guitars at a pawnshop which led to their being arrested.

They also told another cousin they’d robbed a guy, and when the cousin asked why, Joson Vang responded, “We’re just thugs.” Indeed, thugs in prison for life.

Conviction and Appeal

Joson Vang was charged and convicted by a jury of first degree murder, first degree burglary, robbery, arson of an inhabited structure and stealing a vehicle. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole plus a term of nine years and eight months. That should do it.

Even though the sentence for Fessler’s murder was the harshest punishment possible short of the death penalty, Joson Vang’s court appointed, free lawyer appealed.

Here is the tricky, perhaps ridiculous, part. Joson Vang argued that because he and his cousin had killed Fessler before they set fire to his house, they had technically not committed arson of an inhabited structure because the house was not inhabited. To inhabit a house requires a living person and Fessler was dead with two bullet holes in the back of his head. Talk about a self-serving, boot-strap legal argument.

Arson of an Inhabited Structure

The issue in the appeal was whether Fessler’s house was inhabited so he could be convicted of arson of an inhabited structure.


The Court of Appeal struggled with the issue because of the obvious irony that if you kill the resident of the house first, he can’t be occupying the house so you can’t be convicted of arson of an inhabited structure.

While the Court recommended that the Legislature consider closing this loophole in the law, they directed the trial court to resentence Joson Vang from arson of an inhabited structure to arson of a structure.

As noted, it made no difference because Joson Vang was given the strictest punishment possible under the law for Fessler’s murder. Two more “thugs” off the street.

Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee, Tahoe City and Reno. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOAs, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at porter@portersimon.com or http://www.portersimon.com.

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