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A judge has dismissed involuntary manslaughter charges against two people in connection with a Worcester, Mass., blaze last December in which six firefighters died. In a Sept. 19 ruling, Superior Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman found that the fire was accidental and that there was no evidence the two defendants had a duty to report the fire. Hillman wrote in his decision that despite the “tragic results,” the conduct of Thomas Levesque and Julie Ann Barnes did not rise to the level of “wanton and reckless behavior” as alleged by the prosecution. Noting that firefighters do not ordinarily lose their lives when fighting fires, even serious ones, in this instance those responding to the blaze were unable to foresee the severity of the situation, Hillman wrote. “Where professionals trained to evaluate fires were unable to foresee the risks involved when they arrived to fight the fire, this court cannot reasonably attribute such knowledge to these defendants at the time the fire began,” Hillman wrote. “In this case, it is clear that not only a reasonable person, but a reasonable experienced firefighter would have failed to realize the gravity of the danger.” Levesque and Barnes had been charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter for their alleged role in starting and failing to report the Dec. 3 warehouse fire in Worcester. Hillman had to determine whether the prosecution presented the grand jury with sufficient information to find probable cause that the defendants committed involuntary manslaughter. The prosecution contended that the “essence of wanton and reckless conduct is intentional conduct, either by way of commission or of omission where there is a duty to act, which conduct involves a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another.” The prosecution maintained that the defendants’ conduct in starting the fire and not reporting it was a conscious disregard of a risk of substantial harm to others. Although the prosecution conceded that there is no statutory duty to report a fire, the state alleged that the defendants’ failure to report the fire created the likelihood of a serious degree of harm to the six firefighters who perished in the blaze, and, therefore, constituted wanton and reckless behavior. In deciding whether the defendants’ failure to report the fire constituted wanton and reckless conduct, Hillman stated it must focus on the defendants’ conduct — not the devastating consequences. The court stated that even though a duty may be found where the defendants’ actions were so wanton and reckless as to create a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would result to another, the grand jury received no evidence of such conduct. Thus, despite the tragic results, the court held that the pertinent evidence would not warrant a finding of probable cause that the defendants’ conduct rose to the level of wanton and reckless. Consequently, the court dismissed the indictments because “no rational view of the evidence would permit a reasonable person to find probable cause to arrest these defendants for involuntary manslaughter,” Hillman wrote.

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