Saturday 3 December 2016

Berkeley families vow to fight on as criminal charges ruled out

Published 30/03/2016 | 02:30

The scene of the Berkeley balcony tragedy which claimed the lives of six young Irish students: Ashley Donohoe, Olivia Burke, Lorcan Miller, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, and Eimear Walsh. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
The scene of the Berkeley balcony tragedy which claimed the lives of six young Irish students: Ashley Donohoe, Olivia Burke, Lorcan Miller, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, and Eimear Walsh. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

The families of victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse insist they will continue their quest to hold those responsible to account after it emerged that no one will face criminal charges.

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A district attorney in California said there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal manslaughter charges in connection with the tragedy, which claimed the lives of six Irish students and seriously injured seven more.

The announcement came after a nine-month investigation into the tragedy, which occurred on June 16 last year.

Although the likely cause of the collapse - water being trapped in the balcony deck during construction, leading to dry rot - had been established, prosecutors said the burden of proof for a criminal prosecution was very high.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said she did not believe it would be possible to prove manslaughter as a result of criminal negligence beyond a reasonable doubt.

The family of one of the victims, Ashley Donohoe, said they were disappointed by the announcement.

They said they felt a failure of the system made "it very difficult to bring charges against a corporation in a situation like this".

A statement on behalf of the families of the other five who died - J1 students Lorcan Miller, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke - said the announcement was not unexpected, given the high burden of proof required.

However, it said the families were determined "to hold those responsible accountable".

Multi-million-dollar civil suits are being taken against 35 named defendants, including construction and building management firms, seeking punitive damages.

The San Francisco law firm representing five of the families, Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger, said evidence gathered by the district attorney would benefit the families in their civil suits. The law firm said those law suits would now be pursued "in earnest".

Quest

"It remains our clients' quest to uncover the truth, to hold those responsible accountable, and to bring about changes to industry practices to prevent such a needless tragedy from recurring," the law firm said.

Each of the families was informed of Ms O'Malley's decision in advance of it being publicly announced yesterday.

In a statement, the district attorney said there appeared to be many contributory causes of the balcony collapse, including the types of material that were used and the very wet weather Berkeley experienced during the months of construction.

"The responsibility for this failure likely extends to many of the parties involved in the construction or maintenance of the building," she said.

However, Ms O'Malley said proving beyond a reasonable doubt that any one party was guilty of manslaughter would not be possible.

"In order to file a manslaughter case based on criminal ­negligence, the district attorney must be satisfied that any defendant or defendants acted with gross or reckless conduct akin to a disregard for human life, and that the deadly consequences of those actions were ­reasonably foreseeable," she said. "Any such charges would have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to twelve impartial jurors, all of whom must unanimously agree.

"Having carefully considered all the known evidence, and conducting an in-depth legal analysis based on expert opinion, the office has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to bring criminal manslaughter charges against any one individual or company."

Ms O'Malley said it was not a decision she had taken lightly.

"It is the culmination of months of consultation with my team of attorneys. It follows extensive reviews of reports, both legal and factual, and numerous meetings with investigators and experts."

In making the announcement, Ms O'Malley said she was keenly aware of the devastation suffered by the victims and their families.

"Not a day has passed since the tragedy of June 16 that I have not thought of the victims and their families," she said.

Irish Independent

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