The second defendant in the Deutsche Bank Building fire case has been acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment charges. Jeffrey Melofchik, 49, walked out of court a free man, joining Salvatore DePaola, 56, who was acquitted yesterday.
Three construction supervisors, DePaola, Melofchik, and Mitchel Alvo, 58, were charged in connection with the August 18, 2007 fire that claimed the lives of FDNY firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino. The John Galt Corp., which employed Alvo and DePaola, is also charged.
The state claimed that the supervisors were responsible for a standpipe being inoperative at the time of the fire. A 42 foot section of the standpipe had been removed leaving the appearance on the upper floors of a functioning standpipe. The 41 story building was in the process of being demolished in the wake of the 9-11 attack.
Defense lawyers argued that DePaola, Melofchik, and Alvo did not understand what the pipe was, and are being used as scapegoats for operational and regulatory blunders by the city and state of New York. The state argued that the defendants should have realized the risk that the pipe’s removal would create in the event of a fire. Beddia and Graffagnino died of smoke inhalation.
The mental state required for a conviction of involuntary manslaughter or reckless endangerment is recklessness, which is commonly defined as consciously disregarding a known and substantial risk of harm. The “reckless” state of mind has figured prominently in many high profile fire cases, including Commonwealth v. Welanski (Cocoanut Grove fire), and Commonwealth v. Levesque (Worcester Cold Storage fire).
Recall in another FDNY case, a New York judge took a very hard line when it came to a defendant’s “consciousness” of a risk of harm. In February, 2010, Judge Margaret L. Clancy overturned jury verdicts of reckless endangerment and negligent homicide against the owners/landlords of the tenement on East 178th Street where the Black Sunday fire occurred. In that case she found there was no evidence that the landlords knew about illegal renovations that tenants made.
As of yet, there is no indication of the basis for jury’s ruling in the Deutsche Bank Building fire. Perhaps its was based on mental state, perhaps some other factor. The verdicts for the remaining defendants, Alvo and the John Gault Corp., will be decided by the judge. Both opted not to seek a jury trial but left their fate in the hands of Justice Rena K. Uviller.