The quick resolution to the Michael Derderian case has pleased nearly no one – from the prosecutor to the judge to the victims’ families.
Derderian was expected to plead no contest to 200 counts of manslaughter in Rhode Island Superior Court September 19th. In return, he would receive four years in prison and his younger brother, Jeffrey, would receive 500 hours of community service.
The co-owners of The Station nightclub in West Warwick faced separate trials regarding their roles in the fire of February 20, 2003, which resulted in 100 deaths.
Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch insisted he wanted jail time for both defendants but defense attorney Kathleen Hagerty has told the press that the nolo contendere plea was originally suggested by the AG’s office. The Providence Journal published a scribbled note that was allegedly passed from lead prosecutor William Ferland to the defense team September 7th that offered 15 years sentencing with four years served for Michael Derderian (“15/4 T.S. W.R.”) and 10 years suspended and three years probation for Jeffrey.
“That (Hagerty’s allegation) is ludicrous, preposterous, inappropriate and inaccurate,” Lynch told the Journal. “From what I understand, [Ferland] was talking to Kathy, saying what numbers would your client work with? He wrote those down, they talked about them, and he handed it back. That has nothing to do with whether the attorney general will agree to that.”
The alleged leak prompted Darigan to make the rare gesture of writing his own letter to the victims’ families.
News of the plea agreements reached families through news outlets, which didn’t sit well.
“To begin with, the premature leak of the Attorney General’s letter to media by an anonymous source was unethical, reprehensible, devoid of any consideration for the victims of this tragedy and totally abrogated an agreement reached after weeks of discussion between the parties of this case,” judge Francis Darigan said in a statement to the press.
“This Court sincerely regrets – beyond the Court’s ability to articulate – the shock, anger, disbelief and sense of betrayal some of the families must feel because of the despicable action taken by the anonymous source within the Attorney General’s Office.”
The agreement was made in part to spare the victims’ families of a long and painful trial, but some of the victims’ relatives told the Journal otherwise.
“This is an incredible insult to tell me you’re going to ‘spare me’ the only opportunity to get justice for my child,” said Dave Kane, whose 18-year-old son died in the fire. “To tell me the trial is going to make me upset is foolish. … To tell me they’re going to make me go through it again insinuates it ever stops, and it doesn’t.”
James Gahan III, whose son also died in the fire, added, “It was not going to be a pleasant process, but we were prepared for it.” He said the civil trial will have “better lawyers handling the case.”
The plea agreement left a lot of questions unanswered. The fire began when
Also in question was why the city’s fire inspector never noted in his reports that the club was lined with flammable foam used as acoustic insulation, and why he raised the club’s capacity twice, according to the Journal.
“We hung the foam in the nightclub but there are so many extenuating circumstances that we would have brought out,” defense attorney Hagerty told the paper. The brothers ordered acoustical foam, she said, “But instead of getting the sound foam they’d ordered, they got packing foam and were never told that they weren’t getting the sound foam they ordered.”
She also told the paper the foam was sold without a material data warning sheet.
“And we would have presented testimony from employees of American Foam who would have told the jury that they were under orders from the owner not to supply that sheet unless the buyer specifically asked for it. … But the manufacturer of the foam had sent a letter to the distributors encouraging them to give the safety sheet to the end-user.”