Portland waits this week for a judge’s verdict in the trial of a local landlord charged with six counts of manslaughter following Maine’s deadliest house fire in decades.
While Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren contemplates, here’s what you need to know about the case.
On trial is landlord Gregory Nisbet, who owned the building at 20-24 Noyes St. that burned two years ago. Killed in the fire were David Bragdon, 27, Ashley Thomas, 29, and Nicole Finlay, 26, who lived at 20 Noyes St., and visitors Steven Summers, 29, of Rockland, Maelisha Jackson, 23, of Topsham and Chris Conlee, 25, of Portland.
The case is being prosecuted Assistant Attorney General John Alsop and Assistant District Attorney Bud Ellis. Nisbet is represented by criminal defense lawyers Matthew Nichols and Sarah Churchill.
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What’s the trial about?
The state’s case against Nisbet is based on the idea that “his conduct was the legal cause of the deaths — not the fire, but his conduct,” as Alsop put it. Prosecutors in court argued that the landlord did not follow the fire and housing safety standards for a boarding house, which a fire inspector determined the property to be at the time of the fire.
But Nisbet’s defense contends that the inspector lacked all the relevant facts and the address was actually a single family home. That would mean that Nisbet would have to meet different, less demanding standards in terms of emergency exit options and fire safety equipment.
Many details of the case, including the heat and speed of the fire, how long people lingered in the burning house and the size of the windows on 20 Noyes’ third floor, were disputed in the trial. Nisbet’s fate may turn on these points, the legal definition of a family and the minutiae of the housing code.
What’s at stake?
For Nisbet, who did not testify in his own defense and waived his right to a jury trial, the stakes are high. A conviction for one count of manslaughter can mean as much as 30 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. Nisbet is charged with six counts and his sentence would be determined by Warren, if he is convicted.
But lawyers and landlords throughout the state are watching the case closely, as a guilty verdict would set new precedent for criminal prosecution of negligent landlords.
The fire itself has already led to changes for landlords and renters in the city. Portland has since initiated more preemptive inspections, hired three more inspectors and created a new Office of Housing Safety that keeps a registry of rental properties.
For the friends and family of the dead, many of whom sat at the back of the Portland courtroom every day of the weeklong trial, nothing that happens in court will change their loss. But Ashley Summers, the widow of Steven Summers, said she hopes the trial ending will help her and the couple’s two young children reach some closure.
“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,” Summers said.
When is a verdict expected?
Warren told the court Friday that he needed time to review the complex case and array of evidence. He intends to deliver his verdict in open court as well as in writing and said he may rule by late this week.