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After 23 months and six extensions of its term, the grand jury probing the fatal blaze in 2000 at Seton Hall University indicted two former students for arson and related charges last Thursday. But the jurors also handed up a presentment calling for stricter safety standards on furniture flammability, revealing that they’d had a broader focus all along. “During the Assignment Judge’s instructions … it was made clear to us that our duties went beyond finding indictments,” stated the presentment. The jurors said they were told they could “inquire into matters affecting the morals, health, sanitation and general welfare … [and] bring [them] to the attention of public officials.” On June 11, Essex County, N.J., Prosecutor Donald Campolo ordered the arrests of former students James Lepore and Sean Ryan. They are charged with 62 counts, including arson, conspiracy to commit arson, three counts each of reckless manslaughter and felony murder and 53 counts of aggravated assault against those who were injured. They are each being held on $2 million bail. At the heart of the presentment was the way the Jan. 19, 2000, fire started in a couch in the third-floor lounge of the Boland Hall dormitory and quickly spread to two other couches, producing toxic smoke and killing three students. A videotaped simulation of the fire demonstrated that those in the building had only four minutes between the time the fire was lit and the time “conditions in the lounge area became lethal.” “It is our inescapable conclusion that the flammability of the couches in the lounge was a major contributing factor to the deaths of the three young men,” stated the presentment. The grand jurors also heard from flammability expert Gordon Damant, who testified on the risk of fire with upholstered furniture and how tighter flammability standards adopted by California in 1975 substantially reduced those risks. “I impressed on them the urgency to try to see if possibly they could make a recommendation,” says Damant, former head of the California Bureau of Home Furnishings & Thermal Insulation and now director of Inter-City Testing & Consulting Corp. in Sacramento. The jurors agreed. They asked the Legislature to adopt the California standards requiring furniture in public buildings to withstand a 90-second exposure to a large flame from a gas burner without going up in flames. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has adopted that standard, as have Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois and Minnesota, the grand jury noted. The grand jury asked that copies of the presentment to be sent to the governor, the attorney general, state legislators, county prosecutors, other New Jersey officials and the media. The presentment already has elicited at least one legislative response. On Friday, Assemblyman Paul DiGaetano, R-Passaic, said he would introduce a bill today mandating the use of fire-retardant furniture and draperies in schools and nursing homes. The proposed bill would be the second piece of protective legislation spurred by the Seton Hall fire. The Dormitory Safety Trust Fund Act, enacted in 2000, requires schools to install sprinklers in dormitories by 2004. Presentments, while uncommon, have a long history in New Jersey. They can be used not just to make recommendations for legislative action but to censure public officials for dereliction of duty that falls short of criminality. In her 20-year career, Essex County Deputy Chief Assistant Prosecutor Judy Gagliano has seen presentments issued in only two cases she has handled, once in the 1980s and again in the mid-1990s. The more recent instance involved the rape of a patient at United Hospital in Newark, N.J. Grand jurors suggested changes in hospital procedures because they were outraged by the conditions that allowed the rape to take place, recalls Gagliano. In 1996, an Ocean County grand jury looking into pollution at a junkyard called on the Department of Environmental Protection to tighten enforcement of its rules. The Record of Hackensack reported on Dec. 2, 2002, that a Bergen County, N.J., grand jury censured a mayor and town councilman for misuse of public funds because they hired private detectives to look for prostitution in a local strip club.

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