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Utah appeals court tosses Cedar City arson case again

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Posted at 11:14 AM, Dec 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-26 13:14:02-05

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Court of Appeals has rejected prosecutors' attempt to revive a years-old arson case out of Cedar City.

A judge in Cedar City's 5th District Court dismissed arson and fraud charges in 2019 against Clare Eugene Prisbrey, finding prosecutors had insufficient evidence to make him stand trial on the charge. In an order issued Saturday, the Utah Court of Appeals agreed with the judge.

"The magistrate adjudged this case to be one of those rare cases in which the State’s evidence did not surmount the low probable cause bar. And in this unique case, for two related reasons, we discern no abuse of the magistrate’s limited discretion in reaching that conclusion," Utah Court of Appeals Judge Ryan Harris wrote, criticizing the prosecution's case as "largely of innocuous facts coupled with unexamined supposition."

In 2017, Prisbrey and his girlfriend were celebrating New Year's Eve. He'd lit some candles by a Christmas village display set up in his home, then left the home to propose to her at a nearby Latter-day Saint temple. The home caught fire and was later deemed a complete loss, according to the Cedar City News.

The Cedar City Fire Chief suspected arson, according to the ruling. However, Prisbrey's own insurance company believed it to be accidental. Iron County prosecutors leveled arson and fraud charges against Prisbrey.

"At the end of the hearing, the magistrate declined to bind Prisbrey over on either charge, determining that, even though the State’s burden 'is not very high,' the State had failed to meet that burden," Judge Harris wrote.

Iron County prosecutors appealed. In a 2-1 ruling, the Utah Court of Appeals rejected the case again. Judge Jill Pohlman dissented, arguing that she would have sent the case back for further proceedings.

"The State’s case was met with a persuasive rebuttal, and weaknesses in its case were exposed in the preliminary hearing. But the question before us is whether the State, considering the evidence in the light most favorable to it, demonstrated probable cause to arrest Prisbrey for arson. For all these reasons, I believe that it did," she wrote.