When justice expedited is justice denied

A little over three and a half years ago, The Station — a road house/nightclub in Warwick, Rhode Island — burned to the ground. 100 people were killed.

That night, the club was featuring Great White, the 80s metal band. The owners had oversold the show, and the people were packed in. The stage manager for the band had — without the club owners’ knowledge or permission — set up pyrotechnics. When he set them off, they ignited the soundproofing foam, and the place went up like a match.

Since then, there have been a lot of recriminations. Fingerpointing over who shares the lion’s share of the blame for the deaths. The road manager pleaded guilty to 100 counts of negligent homicide and was sentenced to 15 years in prison — with all but 4 years suspended. And the club’s owners, brother Jeff and Michael Derderian, was scheduled to start last week.

Then, during jury selection, the judge announced that a plea bargain had been reached: Michael would get four years in prison, while Jeff (who was the lesser partner and looking to get out of his share of the ownership at the time) would get a suspended sentence and 500 hours community service. The judge said he did this to spare the families of the victims the ordeal of a trial.

This was news to the families, who had been very much looking forward to the trial. Instead, they would have to content themselves with giving “victim impact statements” at the sentencing.

But for some strange reason, the judge didn’t seem overly sensitive to the victims when it moved from the abstract (“sparing them the pain”) to the concrete — when he had to face them in court. Before they could speak, he laid down the law:

1) His mind was made up, so they could not address the plea bargain.

2) They were not to speak to or look directly at the Derderians.

3) Any violation of these rules or the court’s decorum would result in the victim or victim’s family members being removed from the courtroom.

Some of the victims and family members were relieved to be spared the trial, but many more were very unhappy. They had a lot of questions they want answered, and they had hoped that a trial would provide them. For example:

1) Why had the previous owner cheaped out and put up the highly-flammable sound-insulating foam, instead of the required-by-law (and much more expensive) fire-retardant foam?

2) Who had signed off on the required annual inspections by the fire marshal’s office, certifying that the place was safe?

3) Did anyone with the club know that the band manager had set off pyrotechnics at prior Great White gigs, often without telling the clubs beforehand?

A lot of changes have been made in the wake of the fire, to prevent anything like it from happening again. Officials have cracked down — hard — on clubs being overfilled. Older clubs are no longer “grandfathered” out of sprinkler requirements and other safety laws.

But the survivors and the victims’ families still have many questions that have not been answered — and thanks to this judge’s “concern” over them, they most likely never will be.

Same ol' same ol'
A Curiously Selective Commitment to Democracy

17 Comments

  1. Ringmaster October 1, 2006
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