PORTLAND, Maine — The trial of a Portland landlord charged with manslaughter in Maine’s deadliest house fire in 40 years closed Friday, and the presiding judge is not expected to hand down a verdict for several days.
Justice Thomas Warren will decide whether landlord Gregory Nisbet’s alleged failure to maintain a safe building makes him criminally responsible for the deaths of six young adults killed in the accidental fire. Nisbet, who did not take the stand during the five-day trial, had opted for a bench trial rather than letting a jury decide the verdict.
In closing arguments, state prosecutors reiterated their claim that Nisbet’s negligence in keeping his building up to code — and not just the fire — caused the deaths of David Bragdon, 27, Ashley Thomas, 29, Nicole Finlay, 26, Steven Summers, 29, Maelisha Jackson, 23, and Chris Conlee, 25.
“But for the actions of Mr. Nisbet, the deadly results would not have occurred,” Assistant District Attorney Bud Ellis told Warren.
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Nisbet’s lawyers argued that the extensive evidence presented during the trial does not meet the standard for a criminal conviction, which in this case could carry a sentence of 30 years in prison.
“The circumstances are beyond tragic, but things get mixed up in these types of situations,” said defense lawyer Matthew Nichols. “I don’t think that is the strong kind of evidence that we consider truth beyond a reasonable doubt to convict Mr. Nisbet of manslaughter.”
Warren, who is ruling in the case because Nisbet waived his right to a jury trial, said Friday that it would likely take him several days to reach a verdict in the complex case.
The court heard testimony from nearly a dozen witnesses, with some repeatedly returning to the stand. But the case appears to turn primarily on two heavily disputed questions: what type of dwelling Nisbet owned, and whether the third-floor windows could have been a means of escape for the two women and one man who died there.
The type of dwelling is essential because the state alleges that Nisbet neglected the demanding fire safety requirements of a boarding house, which a Maine fire inspector determined 20 Noyes St. to be at the time of the fire because the unrelated tenants did not have a lease, paid rent separately and some had locks on the outside of their doors.
But the defense vigorously contested this, claiming that the building was actually a single-family home. They argued that the fire inspector lacked crucial facts at the time of the determination. The court also heard testimony that the residents thought of themselves as a sort of family.
“This was a family. They were friends. They worked together. They had a single kitchen. They had Thanksgiving dinner … all as a family,” said Nichols.
The prosecution contends that the the small windows on the third floor were inadequate as a second means of escape. Ellis argued that it was not legal to have bedrooms on the top floor of the buildings. And the court heard testimony that a city inspector had received a complaint of an illegal dwelling there but never entered the building to investigate.
“The defendant put people up on the third floor, knowing that if there was a fire up there — and he had thought about that and gave them rope ladders — that they could not get out, a totally reckless thing to do,” said Ellis.
The court also heard contradictory testimony from expert witnesses for the prosecution and the defense over how quickly and with what ferocity the fire would have moved through the house. Nichols suggested that some of the people who survived the five may have misremembered the moment before their escape, and that their testimony could not be relied on as an absolute record of events.
The duplex at 20-24 Noyes St. burned on Halloween 2014 and has since been razed. But the continuing grief caused by the tragedy stood out on the faces of the family and friends who filled benches at the back of the Portland courtroom each day of the weeklong trial.
Some silently cried at the back of the court during the sometimes graphic testimony about what occurred on the night of the fire. But Ashley Summers, the widow of Steven Summers, said that she hoped the trial ending will give a sense of closure and, whatever the verdict, prevent future tragedies.
“It won’t bring Steven back, or any of our loved ones, but I do hope it will serve as a lesson to other landlords in Maine and elsewhere,” said Summers.