Jury Selection Begins for Owner in Deadly Rhode Island Nightclub Fire Case

Jury selection began Tuesday for the highly anticipated trial of one of the owners of the nightclub where a fire killed 100 people three years ago.

Michael Derderian is the first person to stand trial for the Feb. 20, 2003, blaze at The Station, which began when sparks from stage pyrotechnics ignited soundproofing foam on the club's walls and ceiling. It was the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, and also injured more than 200 people.

More than 200 prospective jurors filled out 32-page questionnaires aimed at gauging their knowledge of the fire and any attitudes or personal connections they might have to the case. More than 200 others were summoned to appear Wednesday.

Superior Court Judge Francis Darigan admonished prospective jurors to avoid media coverage of the trial and not to discuss the case with anyone.

"This case has engendered a tremendous public interest and will continue to do so," he said.

Derderian sat quietly beside his attorney, Kathleen Hagerty, and spoke only to give his name and date of birth.

Derderian, 45, and his brother, Jeffrey, the co-owners of the club, each face 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter — two counts for each person killed under separate legal theories. No trial date has been set for Jeffrey Derderian. A count of involuntary manslaughter in Rhode Island carries up to 30 years in prison.

One theory accuses them of committing a misdemeanor — installing flammable foam in violation of the state fire code — that led to the victims' deaths; the other accuses them of operating their club with criminal negligence by maintaining unsafe conditions.

The trial is expected to last several months.

The large jury pool reflects the anticipated difficulty of selecting jurors to hear such a high-profile case in a state so tiny that many seemed to know someone who was killed or injured in the fire, or one of their relatives.

Opening statements are projected to be heard no sooner than the week of Oct. 2.

Daniel Biechele, who ignited the pyrotechnics as tour manager for the band Great White, pleaded guilty in February to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and is serving a four-year prison sentence. Biechele is expected to testify as a prosecution witness that he had permission to use the pyrotechnics as part of the band's act. The Derderians say the band did not have permission.