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Man Who Set Son on Fire Faces Life


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By DAVID KRAVETS, Associated Press Writer

SAN FRANCISCO - A man who spent less than seven years in jail for setting his son on fire two decades ago could be locked up for the rest of his life for illegally possessing a handgun.

Charley Charles, known as Charles Rothenberg when he burned his 6-year-old son in 1983, was found guilty Tuesday of the handgun charge, a conviction that could send him to prison for life under California's tough three-strikes sentencing law.

In the 1983 case, Charles received a 13-year prison term _ the maximum penalty at the time _ but was released for good behavior after serving 6 1/2 years. He changed his name from Rothenberg after being freed.

Charles, 64, said he needed the gun as protection from vigilantes bent on retaliation for the crime against the boy, who grew up severely disfigured.

On the stand last week, Charles testified he bought the .38-caliber handgun in 1997 after he was shot at twice. He said a gunman yelled, "That's the man who burned his son" before firing. He also claimed police said they were too busy to address his complaint.

After deliberating a day, a jury convicted Charles on two counts: being a felon in possession of a handgun and being a felon in possession of ammunition.

Charles next faces the sentencing phase, during which prosecutors will present his previous convictions and demand a life term. Charles was convicted of attempted murder, arson and other charges for burning his son and has a 1961 burglary conviction in New York.

Judge Cynthia Lee will have discretion over his sentence. No sentencing date was scheduled.

Charles faced a maximum 10-year term if San Francisco County District Attorney Kamala Harris had not exercised her discretion and charged him under California's 1994 three strikes law.

"He is one of the most dangerous fellows we have seen in this courthouse," Harris said outside the courtroom Tuesday.

Charles' current legal troubles drew attention not because of the severity of the charges but because of his notoriety.

In 1983, he took his son, David, to a motel in the Southern California suburb of Buena Park and gave the boy a sleeping pill. He then doused him with kerosene, set him afire and left the room.

He said then he was distraught over losing the boy to his estranged wife in a custody battle. The boy survived, suffering third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body.

His attorney, Gabriel Bassan, told jurors his client needed a weapon because had "no reasonable, legal alternative to protect himself." He said Charles was despised by a public that could not forgive his past and was labeled a "baby burner."

Bassan would not comment after Tuesday's verdict.

One juror, Wung Seto, said afterward that Charles could have put more locks on his door, gotten a baseball bat or even a knife to protect himself _ but not a gun.

"Legally, we feel that it is not OK for him to own a gun," Seto said, adding, however: "I understand why he wanted to own a gun."

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Edited by TalonRider
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