San Francisco, CA — A San Francisco jury acquitted a man of seven counts of attempted murder after evidence showed that the fire he caused in 2010 was the unintended result of a botched suicide attempt, Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors deliberated five hours Wednesday before finding Niels Conrad, 55, not guilty of the attempted murders of his mother, five police officers and a fire investigator, said Conrad’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Hadi Razzaq. The attempted murder charges included allegations of premeditation and deliberation and Conrad faced life in prison if convicted.
The jury convicted Conrad of one count of arson of personal property and a lesser charge of unlawfully causing a fire.
Conrad was arrested March 4, 2010 after being found with singed hair and a laceration to his wrist, lying in the backyard of his burning childhood home on Broderick Street in Cow Hollow. Conrad, who was a gifted neonatal intensive care nurse for 28 years, had moved in with his mother less than two months earlier after a series of setbacks, including colon cancer, a heart attack, loss of his job and foreclosure of his home, Razzaq said.
On the day of his arrest, Conrad’s mother told him he could no longer stay with her. The two argued, and Conrad threatened to kill himself rather than be homeless. At one point, Conrad set fire to a paper bag and stomped it out on his mother’s rug, leaving a small burn. Conrad’s mother, then 81, called the police.
Conrad retreated to the basement to gather his things. While putting gas into his moped, he decided to commit suicide by self-immolation, he testified during the two week trial. Conrad began to pour the gasoline on and around him, but there was too little fluid left. He then tried to cut his wrists with a nearby paint can opener, but it was not sharp enough to reach his artery. While looking for a razor blade, Conrad heard a whooshing sound he thought was the furnace and he was briefly engulfed in flames. Struggling to breathe, he staggered to the back yard and collapsed.
Meanwhile, police and a fire investigator were upstairs talking to Conrad’s mother when they noticed heavy black smoke pouring through the heating vents. Firefighters responded and extinguished the fire. Conrad, the only person injured in the blaze, was taken to the hospital, where he told police he wanted to commit suicide.
“Mr. Conrad never had the intent to harm anyone other than himself,” Razzaq said. “He simply had no hope that the pain and suffering he was experiencing would ever go away.”
During the trial, Conrad testified about his lifelong struggle with depression, including two other suicide attempts, his devastation over losing his home and career, and his fear of being homeless.
A fire investigator who reviewed the evidence also took the stand for the defense. He testified that the physical and forensic evidence was consistent with Conrad’s statement at the hospital and trial testimony that the fire started unintentionally when the gas vapors on the ground were ignited by the water heater’s standing pilot light.
“In the end, jurors did not believe that Mr. Conrad wanted to or attempted to kill his mother or any law enforcement officers. There was simply no evidence he intentionally or maliciously started a fire in the basement,” Razzaq said.
Conrad’s arson conviction was for lighting the paper bag on fire and stomping it out on the rug. The lesser charge of unlawfully causing a fire was connected to the accidental fire in the basement and can be, at a judge’s discretion, charged as either a felony or misdemeanor.
Adachi commended the jury for looking at the evidence with a critical eye.
“This case was outrageously overcharged,” Adachi said. “Mr. Conrad had no history of violence and there was simply no evidence to suggest this was anything but a tragic suicide attempt that went terribly wrong.”