A Bronx Supreme Court Judge this morning overturned the conviction of a landlord found guilty in the deaths of two firefighters.
Cesar Rios was found guilty of criminal negligence after Lt. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter John Bellew were killed trying to battle flames in his Tremont apartment building. But in a rare move this morning, Judge Margaret Clancy of Bronx Supreme Court set aside that 2009 verdict, deciding there was not enough evidence to show that Rios was aware of the dangerous conditions that led to the firefighters’ deaths.
Six firefighters responded to the January 2005 fire that investigators said started when overloaded and spliced wires sparked, igniting bedding material. The men became trapped inside the apartment because of an illegal partition that blocked access to the fire escape and made thermal imaging of the fire less accurate. The partition also trapped the heat until it reached explosive levels, sending a fireball coursing through the narrow hallway and cutting off any escape route.
The firefighters were forced to jump out of the window onto pavement five stories below. Meyran and Bellew were killed on impact.
Rafael Castillo, the tenant who built the illegal partitions, was found innocent of negligent homicide in 2009. But a separate jury found Rios guilty.
Judge Clancy cited “complex issues” in the court’s decision to revisit the case, including the revelation that a juror contacted one of the firefighter witnesses over Facebook before returning a verdict. Clancy emphasized it was not this breach of conduct, but the lack of sufficient evidence that led her to overturn the guilty verdict. She said the prosecution never proved that Rios had actual knowledge that Castillo had built the partition that led to the deaths.
Family members, including the widows of the two firefighters killed in the blaze, watched bleary-eyed from the benches of the courtroom, trying to interpret the decision. “She let him go,” cried Jeanette Meyran, her brash voice tinged with bitterness at what she called a ridiculous liberal decision after six months of waiting.
“I hope she has a big pillow to put her head on tonight,” Meyran said. “The scar’s just been opened again and again.”
Surviving firefighter Jeffrey Cool was furious that Clancy could single-handedly overturn a verdict reached by 12 people. It is uncommon for a judge to set aside a conviction, although no one keeps statistics on how often it happens. “She’s supplanting a jury,” said defense attorney Delmas Costin. “This is huge.”
Columbia Law Professor David Richman said, “It’s certainly unusual.” But a judge may review the evidence and decide no reasonable jury would have convicted.
The Bronx District Attorney’s Office has yet to decide whether it will appeal.
“There’s no consideration for the families,” said Jeanette Meyran. “It’s going to be 10 years before this is all over.”