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October 16, 2013

Legal highlights (via Wikipedia) after The Station nightclub fire, a variation on the Cocoanut Grove fire

Wikipedia has this decent entry on the fire that led to Welasky's trial and conviction, although real historians can and should take the time to do more research on the story if so interested.  And I mention the most recent modern variation on these sad facts, which happened in Rhode Island in 2003 at The Station nightclub.  Here are the basic facts of that case and the legal aftermath (drawn from this Wikipedia entry):

The Station Nightclub fire was the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, killing 100 people. The fire began at 11:07 PM EST, on Thursday, February 20, 2003, at The Station, a glam metal and rock and roll themed nightclub located at 211 Cowesett Avenue in West Warwick, Rhode Island.

The fire was caused by pyrotechnics set off by the tour manager of the evening's headlining band, Jack Russell's Great White, which ignited flammable sound insulation foam in the walls and ceilings surrounding the stage. A fast-moving fire engulfed the club in 5½ minutes. In addition to the 100 fatalities, some 230 people were injured and another 132 escaped uninjured....

In the days after the fire, there were considerable efforts to assign and avoid blame on the part of the band, the nightclub owners, the manufacturers and distributors of the foam material and pyrotechnics, and the concert promoters. Through attorneys, club owners said they did not give permission to the band to use pyrotechnics. Band members claimed they had permission....

On December 9, 2003, brothers Jeffrey A. and Michael A. Derderian, the two owners of The Station nightclub, and Daniel M. Biechele, Great White's former road manager, were charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter — two per death, because they were indicted under two separate theories of the crime: criminal-negligence manslaughter (resulting from a legal act in which the accused ignores the risks to others and someone is killed) and misdemeanor manslaughter (resulting from a petty crime that causes a death)....

The first criminal trial was against Great White's tour manager at the time, Daniel Michel Biechele, 29, from Orlando, Florida. This trial was scheduled to start May 1, 2006, but Biechele, against his lawyers' advice, pled guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter on February 7, 2006, in what he said was an effort to "bring peace, I want this to be over with."... Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan sentenced Biechele to 15 years in prison, with four to serve and 11 years suspended, plus three years' probation, for his role in the fire....

Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan sentenced Biechele to 15 years in prison, with four to serve and 11 years suspended, plus three years' probation, for his role in the fire....

Following Biechele's trial, the Station's owners, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, were scheduled to receive separate trials. However, on September 21, 2006, Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan announced that the brothers had changed their pleas from "not guilty" to "no contest," thereby avoiding a trial. Michael Derderian received 15 years in prison, with four to serve and 11 years suspended, plus three years' probation — the same sentence as Biechele. Jeffrey Derderian received a 10-year suspended sentence, three years' probation, and 500 hours of community service.

In a letter to the victims' families, Judge Darigan said that a trial "would only serve to further traumatize and victimize not only the loved ones of the deceased and the survivors of this fire, but the general public as well." He added that the difference in the brothers' sentences reflected their respective involvement with the purchase and installation of the flammable foam.

Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch objected strenuously to the plea bargain, saying that both brothers should have received jail time and that Michael Derderian should have received more time than Biechele.

October 16, 2013 in Class reflections, Notable real cases, Reflections on class readings | Permalink


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This comment is exclusively addressing Welansky:

I am interested why they "randomly chose 19 victims" to represent the dead? I can't find any particular reason that 19 victims was chosen on behalf of the dead. I only did surface research but did not find any reasoning why 19 victim were chose. This is interesting considering Biechele plead guilty to 100 counts (plea agreement seems to fit a nice round number like 100). But why 19??

However, assuming Wikipedia is accurate (which I loooooove assuming) this is a brutal fact pattern. The desire of Welansky wishing he "died with the others in the fire" upon his cancer riddled pardon is just about as hopeless as it gets.

However, as we were discussing in class, the court seems to have identified a few justifications for not punishing the busboy who sparked the match that lit the fire. It appears that the boy was not punished because he was "not responsible for the flammable decorations or the safety code violation". If I really buy that argument is another story but, it offers a as much of a barometer for assigning guilt as you could really expect out of a wikipedia page...or at least something to strike up some thoughts.

All in all, just a remarkably tragic situation with terrible terrible consequences.

Posted by: Christopher Sponseller | Oct 16, 2013 9:59:41 PM

In class today, I was trying to imagine myself as the prosecutor in the Welansky case. When we discussed the 3 requirements for evaluating unintentional homicides (1. the amount of risk/potential harms, 2. awareness/ability to be aware, 3. justification/benefits.), I had a tough time addressing #2. Of course, Mr. Welansky is in the hospital during the time of the fire. In the case, it seems there are two things he needed to be aware of in order to be held truly culpable for a criminal act. First, he needed to have known that the fire exits were inadequate, placing hundreds of people in a dangerous situation with no escape, and in clear violation of his duty as club owner. I don't think there is any doubt that he knew of the inadequacy of such safety measures.

However, the court interestingly spends a lot of time discussing the specific composition of the 'installation of flammable decorations' (i.e. low-hanging drop ceiling, the palm-tree decorations, etc.) The Court seems to imply that 'but for' these decorations, perhaps the fire would not have ignited so quickly, or would not have spread so easily. They seem to be an aggravating factor. Is there something about the inherent nature of the decorations themselves that added to the dangerousness of the situation, and if so, could Mr. Welansky be said to be truly 'aware' of these decorations? The prosecution would need to prove that he ordered them, placed them himself, or otherwise approved their being in the club. As prosecutor, I would feel as though the defense is going to obviously play up the fact that Mr. Welansky could propose that he did not do so. Does the Court care? Does awareness need to apply to every factor causing the fire? Or, when there are 'a pile of dead bodies' does this requirement relax and go out the window? I'm curious as to how a Court might instruct a jury on the 'awareness' issue: is it a strict requirement that must be traced to all possible fire factors, or merely a guideline?

On a somewhat different note, it was interesting that the codefendants in the Cocoanut Grove fire were punished, yet Welansky's brother and his employee were acquitted by the jury in the textbook case. The proportionality punishment demonstrated above is an interesting approach to sentencing defendants with differing degrees of culpability. Though I'm not sure I agree with Derderian and Biechele receiving essentially the same sentences, this may have been a useful approach for the prosecutor to try out in the Welansky case.

Posted by: Kelly Flanigan | Oct 16, 2013 10:07:22 PM

Lexis does a great job of laying out the appeals by Welansky;

"The refusal to give the following instruction requested by the defendant: "If the death or deaths of the persons named resulted from the fire, and the fire was started by someone other than the defendant and not because of the defendant's acts or failure to act, then he must be found not guilty."

"The refusal to give the following instruction requested by the defendant: "If the jury finds that the acts or omissions of the defendant, even though wanton and reckless on his part, were not the cause of the fire, and the fire caused the deaths . . . the defendant must be found not guilty."

Among others... Most importantly the summary of the case distinguishes between causing and as a 'result of' Welansky's actions;

"The court affirmed defendant's conviction of manslaughter, holding prosecution was not required to prove he CAUSED fire by some wanton or reckless conduct but that it was enough to prove that death RESULTED FROM his wanton or reckless disregard of safety of patrons in event of fire from any cause."

I think that it is interesting to consider what Welansky would be charged with under the MPC (Interesting/more important to a potential exam question, although Professor Berman must have some affinity for Massachusetts Criminal Statutes.). Are his actions (or omissions) reckless or negligent? Welansky would argue neither but probably settle for negligent. The prosecution would probably argue reckless, mostly due, to the statute that is referenced on page 401. It would also be difficult to get Welanksy on Murder under the MPC. Can a statute, among other things, prove an "extreme indifference to the value of human life? I would say not in this case. If Welansky has 'purposely' placed small fires in front of doorways to keep patrons in his bar to spend money, that would probably be considered murder.

Posted by: Matt Raby | Oct 17, 2013 8:37:08 AM


I don't think the jury cares very much about the decorations. Even if we analyze #2 and Welansky has no knowledge of the decorations. I believe he had the ability to be aware that such a thing could have happened. It seems we aren't punishing Welansky for an act of starting a fire or ordering flammable decor. Rather, his punishment is for an inability (omission) to provide any remotely sufficient means of escape.

I think the "awareness" or the "ability to be aware" instruction given to the jury would have to be in respect to the installation of fire escapes (or perhaps the inability to make them accessible) not to purchasing and installing decor.

But, I think you're on to something with your PODB (how the cool kids refer to pile of dead bodies) theory. Because, as we discussed in class, if Welansky died in the hospital, we'd want someone to pay for this crime. If all the employees died in the fire I bet the community would go after the fabric distributor or some safety-door manufacturer or the contracted construction company to give some sense of closure and set some type of an example.

Posted by: Christopher Sponseller | Oct 17, 2013 8:54:21 AM

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