WARWICK, R.I. – Enraged that no one will see more than four years in prison for the 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people, victims’ relatives vented their fury Friday at a judge as he accepted plea deals from the club’s owners in the name of avoiding a graphic, heart-wrenching trial.
Michael Derderian received four years behind bars and his brother, Jeffrey, got no prison time at all after they pleaded no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The fire, sparked by a rock group’s pyrotechnics, quickly engulfed The Station nightclub because the Derderians had installed highly flammable foam on the walls to ease neighbors’ noise concerns.
Judge Francis Darigan admonished the victims’ relatives not to try to talk him out of the plea deals. But many of them bitterly ignored the warning in a sentencing so turbulent that the judge abruptly recessed proceedings at one point.
“Lady Justice in Rhode Island is blind, but she’s also deaf,” Jay McLaughlin, a relative of two of the victims, told the judge. Other family members applauded as he returned to his seat.
“Before I read my statement, I’d like to just say I will address you, but I will not say, ‘Your Honor.’ I don’t think you’re an honorable man. I don’t respect you,” said Annmarie Swidwa, the mother of a 25-year-old victim.
Victims’ families were angry not only over the sentences but also because they believed a trial would have told them more about how and why their loved ones died.
The judge, though, refused to reconsider the plea deals, saying they would spare the victims and all of Rhode Island from having to “relive the moments of this tragedy” through graphic images and descriptions, and that it would “avoid an extremely lengthy, costly and heart-rending trial whose outcome was uncertain.”
“I understand how you feel about this case,” the judge told family members. “My greatest regret, however, most sincere regret, is that this criminal justice system cannot give you the relief you seek.”
Prosecutors said they objected to the sentences and urged prison time for both men. Defense lawyer Kathleen Hagerty has said prosecutors offered the terms during negotiations, but Darigan took responsibility for the deal Friday.