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Proof of general intent with malice is all that is required for the crime of arson under Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 266, § 1. In the context of Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 266, § 1, requiring malice ensures that the act is done with a design to do an intentional wrongful act without any legal justification, excuse or claim of right. The willful and malice requirement ensures that the setting of the fire must be a deliberate and intentional act, as distinguished from an accidental or unintentional ignition or act of setting a fire.
In December 2010, defendant Melissa Pfeiffer was living in a ground-floor unit of a two-story apartment building with her boyfriend, William Brewer, and their two-year-old son. Early that evening, defendant dropped their son off to spend the night at a relative's home, arriving back at the apartment at approximately 9 pm. Immediately upon the defendant's return, she and her boyfriend engaged in a heated argument that resulted in her boyfriend leaving for a nearby bar. Following this argument, defendant set a bag of his clothes on fire inside their apartment, then fled the building without calling for help or warning the occupants of other units. One person died in the resulting two-alarm fire. Three others, including two firefighters, were injured. A superior court jury convicted the defendant of arson of a dwelling house, felony-murder in the second degree, and two counts of injuring a firefighter. The defendant appealed.
Were the defendant’s convictions proper?
The judgments were affirmed by the court. The court held that proof of general intent with malice was all that was required for the crime of arson, Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 266, § 1, and that the Legislature had given no indication in more than 200 years that it intended to deviate from the common-law general intent requirement for the crime of arson. The court also held that the evidence was overwhelming that defendant acted with general intent and malice for purposes of arson when she set fire to a bag of clothes located on the floor inside an apartment for the purpose of exacting revenge against her boyfriend and because of defendant description of her conduct and motivation to more than one person immediately after she left the apartment building, the fire was not the product of an accident or negligence. The court added that although it was error to provide a supplemental instruction on arson, the error did not materially influence the guilty verdict.