The Corner

Law & the Courts

Public Enemy No. 1: The Couple Who Started a Wildfire through a Gender Reveal

The LNU Lightning Complex Fire engulfs a ridge line near Aetna Springs, Calif., August 23, 2020. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

The almost comically absurd year that was 2020 would not have been complete without the El Dorado wildfire. It reduced over 22,000 acres to cinders, killed a firefighter, and burned several homes to the ground. It was a bad one, but, placed in the context of the 2020 California wildfire season, it was borderline insignificant. Of the six largest wildfires in the state’s history, five of them occurred last year, each of them an order of magnitude larger than the El Dorado. Yet it still took up a disproportionate amount of the media attention. You may know it as the “Gender-Reveal Wildfire.”

Refugio and Angela Jimenez had unintentionally caused a fire while celebrating the gender of their baby. As soon as it began, they attempted to extinguish it, alerted the authorities, and shared pictures with investigators. Immediately, journalists and social-media users began calling for the couple’s heads. Instagram posters wrote ominous comments searching for the family’s information, Twitter was obviously in an uproar, and opinion writers at CNN and the Los Angeles Times took the opportunity to shriek about the anachronistic, transphobic nature of gender-reveal parties.

Recently, San Bernardino District Attorney Jason Anderson slapped the Jimenezes with 30 criminal charges, eight of which were felonies, including one count of involuntary manslaughter. The indictment, much like the original story, received national attention and, unsurprisingly, praise. But this is nothing to celebrate. It’s rapidly morphing into a witch hunt.

The politicization of our courts has been a growing, worrying trend. There was the prosecution’s back and forth when deciding what charges Derek Chauvin would face, as Minnesota attorneys cowed to public pressure. Then there’s the way state attorneys general pathologically sue the federal government when their party is not in control of the presidency. The Connecticut supreme court has gone as far as to permit attorneys to sue gun manufacturers for damages in mass shootings. 

For the record, the prosecutor behind all of this, Jason Anderson, is a Republican. His campaign platform promised to prioritize charging violent criminals and sex offenders, along with a call to end “podium press conferences and political prosecutions.” But murders are up in San Bernardino by over 70 percent this year. Human-trafficking cases are up one thousand percent. Yet here the honorable Anderson is, giving a podium press conference about a mindbogglingly stupid gender-reveal party.

The Jimenez family may very well deserve to be held accountable for what they did. Their actions led to the death of a firefighter and a total upset of the lives of dozens of San Bernardino County residents. But let’s not play the fool. Gender-reveal parties are targets for criticism, yes, and the couple may have failed to take the proper safety precautions (we don’t know yet!). But a malfunctioning device that you quickly report is not the same as consciously throwing a loose cigarette into a field of tall, dry grass.

Don’t charge them with manslaughter, especially when there are so many other nuts to crack. Deal with the pimps first, then come back and sue the Jimenezes’s heads off for damages. Last year was a horrible wildfire season for reasons ranging from abnormal weather conditions to atrocious forest mismanagement. We should not resort to scapegoating or kicking a poor couple while they are already down. I’m sure they already feel terrible. It can be tempting to try to transfer all the anguish caused by disasters, whether they be fires or shootings, onto one party. But this is not Salem. We can do better than that.

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