A second trial for a Valley Springs boy ended the same as the first with a judge declaring him guilty of stabbing his sister to death.
Isiah Fowler, 17, was expressionless as Judge Susan C. Harlan made her judgment, without comment, immediately following the conclusion of closing arguments.
As the verdict was made, a man at the back of the room shouted an expletive and stormed out the courtroom door. Moments later, Isiah Fowler’s father, Barney Fowler, entered the courtroom and appeared downcast as he leaned against the wall.
“He’ll call me tonight. I’ll see him this weekend,” Barney Fowler said following the trial. “He told me that he doesn’t care how much time they gave him as long as I know he didn’t do it.”
Isiah Fowler’s father and stepmother, Crystal Fowler, have maintained the boy’s innocence through the investigation as well as the two trials.
“We knew this was highly unlikely this would happen,” she said of her son’s exoneration. Still, she said, when she spoke to Isiah on Tuesday “he felt good” and “was ready to come home.”
His first plan if he was released, she added, would have been to attend his brother’s Little League baseball all-star game this weekend.
When the verdict was read, Isiah Fowler’s attorney, Mark Reichel, said Isiah leaned over to him and said, “just, ‘What’s the next step?’ ”
Reichel said he planned to take the case back to the Sacramento appeals court that first ordered Isiah Fowler’s retrial on the grounds that insufficient evidence was presented to convict him of the crime. He will also seek to bring the case to the California Governor’s Office for a review and possible pardon, he added.
“It’s crazy to think a 12-year-old could have done this,” he said. “There’s a lot of law in this country, but not a lot of justice.”
District Attorney Barbara Yook said over the phone after the hearing that she has no doubt Isiah murdered his sister with a kitchen knife on April 27, 2013.
“It is an absolute tragedy all the way around,” she said. “It is very difficult for us to go through the trial again and relive it again, but the family relives it everyday.”
Despite the beliefs of the family, the goal of the prosecution was to “always get justice for Leila,” she said.
“Leila is gone forever by her big brother,” Yook said during her closing arguments. “The facts, the logic, science and the law lead to one conclusion only.”
When Isiah arrived Wednesday morning dressed in a gray polo shirt, dark jeans and with his hair tied into a ponytail, he beamed toward more than a dozen family members and friends waiting for him in the wings of the courtroom.
As he left, he wrung his fingers together and was patted on the back by Reichel and the defense investigator, Joe Kennedy. He rose, placed his hands behind his back and was led back into holding by a man dressed in a law enforcement vest emblazoned with the word “probation.”
He did not look back toward his father and stepmother, who had waited outside of the courtroom during the closing arguments and went back in only after the man cussed and left the room.
About noon on April 27, 2013, Leila Fowler, then 8 years old, was stabbed 22 times in the arms and chest while on the top bunk of a twin-sized bed in her bedroom. Three stab wounds to her lungs and heart were identified as the cause of death.
Wednesday morning, Deputy District Attorney Dana Pfeil reiterated the belief of the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office that Isiah Fowler stabbed his sister to death with a kitchen knife and sought to elude authorities with a story about a 6-foot-tall Mexican intruder with shoulder-length gray hair who he said killed his sister and threatened him as he hid in a bathroom.
Leila Fowler’s blood was found in the interior of a clean knife found on an unmarked white towel in the house, the prosecution said, and a Ghostbusters T-shirt that belonged to Isiah and was stained with Leila’s blood was found stuffed in a hamper in his room.
“It didn’t happen. There was no intruder. Why would the minor tell the intruder story? Because he did it,” Yook said. “He stabbed her over and over and over, out of existence and out of memory.”
Reichel contended that the murder was a physical impossibility for Isiah Fowler, who he claimed was too short to reach over the bed and stab Leila, who had been braced against the wall. The boy would have to be a “criminal mastermind,” he added, to clean the crime scene of extensive blood stains on his body and clothes.
The knife was not the murder weapon, he said, because the “ugly and jagged” tip and serrated edge was not consistent with the wounds on Leila. Leila was also found with unidentified male DNA in her hair and in her underpants, which suggested she could have been attacked or molested by the unknown intruder.
“There are monsters out there that come into our houses. Thank God it’s not that frequent,” he said. “We never convict somebody of murdering their sister unless we know everything important. We didn’t know that.”
The prosecution also never provided a motive for why a 12-year-old boy from a happy family would stab a sister that he loved, he added.
“Up until that point we have nothing but love,” he said. “We are blaming a 12-year-old boy, but he cannot defend himself.”
The prosecution contended that proving motive was not a necessary component for the case when other details emphasized their conclusion.
“We don’t know why. We know how and we know who. And the court knows motive is not an element in this case,” Yook said.
Isiah Fowler, then 12, was arrested in May 2013 and was convicted of second-degree murder in October 2015 by Judge Thomas Smith. The conviction was overturned by three appeals court judges in February, who found he was not adequately advised of his Miranda rights during four interviews with Calaveras County Sheriff’s deputies and FBI officials. The statements were stricken from the court record for the start of his retrial on June 19.
Much of the testimony from Isiah’s first trial was submitted to Harlan as transcripts, and Barney Fowler suggested that the lack of fresh information may have contributed to a preconceived judgment in the case.
“There was no new trial,” he said.
Reichel decried that Harlan did not examine the alleged murder weapon before her verdict, which was discussed at length Wednesday morning before the conclusion of the arguments.
“This trial further convinced anyone who watched that he was innocent,” he said. “We are disappointed in the finding of guilt.”
A single-judge ruling contributed to the finding of guilt, he added, and a jury trial would have been a more ethical determination of Isiah Fowler’s conviction. Over the course of the retrial, Isiah was more active in his defense, he said, but the boy still bore traumatic scars from his incarceration.
Reichel said Isiah told him that when he was released from prison, he was “never going to go anywhere in his life without a video camera.”
“Is that any way to live?” he said.
The trial spanned three days. Harlan scheduled a sentencing hearing for 10:30 a.m. July 24.
Isiah Fowler was previously sentenced to be incarcerated until the age of 23, but the sentence was vacated when his previous trial was overturned.
Harlan can choose to impose the same sentence or a new one.
Isiah Fowler has been held at the California Youth Authority facility in Stockton since his previous conviction, and has been held at the El Dorado juvenile facility for the duration of his new trial.
Outside of the courtroom following the conviction, the mood of Isiah Fowler’s many supporters was morose.
Kennedy very quickly left Superior Court to speak to family outside of the main entrance.
Some dabbed their eyes and provided gestures of consolation for Barney and Crystal Fowler.
The family would have to come to terms with the judgment for now, they said.
“Today it’s taking our kids to Little League,” Crystal Fowler said. Later, she would “dedicate her life” to the advocacy of juvenile rights, because the fight to free and exonerate their son was not over yet.