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Man Who Set 6-Year Old Son on Fire Faces New Felony Charges

A man convicted of attempted murder and arson after setting his 6-year-old son on fire in 1983 faces three new felony charges of threatening a prosecutor, city officials said Sunday.

Charley Charles, formerly known as Charles Rothenberg, said he believes prosecutors are trying to win a three-strikes conviction against him because he hurt his son more than two decades ago.

"It's political now," Charles said during a rare jailhouse interview Sunday with The Associated Press.

Debbie Mesloh, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said she could not comment about whether Charles could face three-strike prosecution.

"The defendant has committed yet another crime rising to a felony, and we are prosecuting him for that," Mesloh said.

The district attorney's office tried to put Charles behind bars for life last year under California's Three Strikes Law when he was arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He said he needed the weapon for self-defense, but a jury ended up convicting him of another felony.

A judge prevented District Attorney Kamala Harris from seeking a third strike against Charles, ruling the murder and arson convictions couldn't be counted as a first and second strike because they stemmed from the same criminal act.

Harris was criticized for seeking a life term for a nonviolent offense, something she pledged she wouldn't do before her election. But Mesloh said the office has a policy to sometimes pursue third strike charges in the interest of public safety, particularly when felons possess guns.

The latest charges against Charles, 66, involve alleged threats, Mesloh said. Charles, who is awaiting an October trial for alleged credit card fraud, is scheduled for arraignment Monday in San Francisco Superior Court.

In 1983, Charles gave his son a sleeping pill before dousing their motel room with kerosene and lighting the fuel before leaving. He said he was distraught about losing the boy to his estranged wife in a custody battle.

The boy survived, suffering third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body.

Charles said during the interview that he "snapped." He also said he had contemplated a murder-suicide by jumping into Niagara Falls with his son.

He served about 6 1/2 years of a 12-year sentence. The relatively light punishment drew outrage and helped pave the way for stricter sentencing guidelines.

Charles denied the latest accusations and said he believes prosecutors have a vendetta against him.

"You can't blame them. A lot of them have children... They are automatically going to judge and criticize," he said, adding that he has no contact with his son, now 30.

Charles said the alleged phone threats were made against the prosecutor during last year's weapons-related case. He said phone company records show he made no phone calls to the district attorney's office. He also said some of the threats were in Spanish and he isn't bilingual.

"I do not have the DA's number. I have no access to that," Charles said.

Mesloh confirmed the charges involve phone threats.

The three-strikes law gets its name because felons can get life sentences on their third conviction, provided the first two strikes were serious or violent felonies. Prosecutors have the discretion to decide how to charge a case.

Charles' public defender, Gabriel Bassan, didn't return a call seeking comment Sunday.

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