PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The owner of a building where six people were killed in a fire was acquitted Friday of manslaughter but was convicted of a code violation for converted attic rooms described by prosecutors as "death traps."
Gregory Nisbet was found not guilty of the most serious charges of manslaughter, which carry a penalty of up to 30 years in prison. He also was acquitted of some lesser charges but was convicted for not having an adequate means of escape from third-floor rooms.
Prosecutors argued at trial that the screams of three victims trapped in the third floor indicated they were alive and would've survived if they had another way to escape. Those rooms were "death traps," they told the judge, who presided over the nonjury trial.
The defense contended the state was trying to hold Nisbet to a higher standard by classifying the home as a boarding house.
In delivering the verdict, Justice Thomas Warren said Nisbet was not "blameless" for the deadly blaze but the evidence was insufficient to convict him of recklessly causing the deaths.
The case was widely watched in Maine, where no landlord has been successfully prosecuted for manslaughter because of poor building conditions. Nisbet faces up to 180 days in jail on the code violation when he is sentenced.
At trial, prosecutors also presented evidence that Nisbet's building lacked working smoke detectors and other safety measures. He had stopped maintaining the building and vetting tenants because it was in foreclosure, they said. Conditions had gotten so out of hand that some people were living temporarily in the cellar or even outside using extension cords for electricity, prosecutors said.
The fire swept through the apartment house early on Nov. 1, 2014, after a Halloween party. Killed in the blaze were Nicole Finlay, David Bragdon Jr., Ashley Thomas and Christopher Conlee, along with Topsham resident Maelisha Jackson. Rockland resident Steven Summers was hospitalized and died two days later. Several others were able to escape.
The fire was determined to be an accident, blamed on improperly discarded smoking materials on the porch. The remnants of the house have since been demolished.
"If there's anything good coming out of this, it's hopefully a change in the way (the safety) code is looked at, and the way residencies are rented," said prosecutor Bud Ellis.
Several family members were on hand for the verdict, and many members of the audience sighed or wept as Warren read the verdict. Civil lawsuits stemming from the fire are still pending.
Nisbet did not speak during the court appearance. His attorney, Matthew Nichols, agreed with prosecutors that the case was a sobering lesson for landlords about the importance of safety.
"The effect of this process has been to put every landlord within shouting distance on notice that they don't want to go through this," Nichols said.
Since the fire, the city has created a Housing Safety Office and a rental housing registration and inspection program. More than 18,000 rental units have been registered and more than 800 properties have been inspected.
Associated Press writer David Sharp in Portland contributed to this report.