The politics of tragedy

By IAN DONNIS  |  October 4, 2006

Harsch, though, has hardly been aggressive in responding to the public dissatisfaction with the outcome of the Station charges. (Perhaps realizing this, he seems to have sought out the Providence Journal for a story, published Wednesday, in which he repeated his pledge to reopen the case.) Without a big enough war chest to significantly boost his name recognition, “He really has to rely on the news media to help him build support,” says Brown University political science professor Darrell West. “If he doesn’t get favorable coverage, it will be difficult for him to win.”

To Lynch’s defenders, the plea bargain represented an instance of overreaching judicial intervention, in which Darigan — who claimed “the right and the final responsibility” for the outcome — opted to resolve the emotionally fraught case.

In fact, while it is easy to criticize judges, Darigan’s lengthy explanation — which included such factors as the possibility of an acquittal, how many of the fire survivors were unable or unwilling to testify, and the difficulty of seating an impartial jury — was credible and well-considered, even if it got short shrift on TV news. (Not that it was particularly surprising that the case didn’t go to trial, since more than 90 percent of criminal charges are resolved through plea bargains.)

Part of the underlying problem with this case was a distribution of blame that seemed partially arbitrary. The Derderians claimed in court to be unaware of the highly flammable quality of the foam soundproofing they installed. Yet although the defense was prepared, according to the ProJo, to show that West Warwick fire inspector Denis Larocque “had inspected the Station six times after the foam was installed, but never cited the Derderians for having flammable foam in their club,” state laws “protect public officials from lawsuits unless it can be proven their actions were intentionally malicious.”

Like a number of other observers, though, Harsch contends that a plea bargain couldn’t have been struck without some participation by Lynch’s office, and for Lynch to suggest otherwise, he says, means the AG is being disingenuous or doesn’t have control of his office. “He’s simply trying to have it both ways,” says Harsch. “There is no such thing as a half-way plea bargain.”

Asked to respond, Lynch makes no secret of his disdain for his opponent, saying, “It’s almost like consider the source.” He faults Harsch for “trying to score political points, even before the judge has spoken.” While the dissonance over the outcome “illustrates how people are struggling with understanding it,” says Lynch — who maintains he was unwilling to back a deal that spared Jeff Derderian a prison sentence — “I think the judge very clearly articulated the true process as it played out.”

In the aftermath of news about the plea, Andrew Horwitz, a professor at the law school at Roger Williams University, considered it unfortunate that the public focus shifted to where the plea bargain came from, rather than the more central discussion of whether this was the right outcome of the case — and whether, in responding to the tragedy, anyone should have been charged with a crime. In a message later echoed by Darigan, Horwitz wondered, “Do we ask the criminal justice system to accomplish things that it can not possibly accomplish?”
 

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Related: Justice is blind, Blue (-Eyed) Devils?, Truth, Justice — or the Boston Way, More more >
  Topics: News Features , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, Lincoln Chafee,  More more >
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