Judge Rebukes Attorney General for Leak of Plea Deal in R.I. Nightclub Fire Case

The judge overseeing the criminal case against owners of a nightclub where a fire killed 100 people said Thursday the leak of details about their deal to avoid guilty pleas was "despicable" and "unquestionably came from within the attorney general's office."

In a stinging rebuke from the bench, Judge Francis Darigan called the release of Attorney General Patrick Lynch's letter to victims' families unethical, reprehensible and "devoid of any consideration for the victims of this tragedy."

The letter was faxed anonymously to WJAR-TV Wednesday. The Providence Journal also received a copy.

Lynch's letter said he was opposed to the terms of the no contest plea deal, which gave Jeffrey Derderian no jail time and Michael Derderian four years in prison. However, the Derderians' lawyer said Lynch's office proposed the terms to settle the criminal case stemming from the Feb. 20, 2003, fire at The Station in West Warwick.

Darigan said Lynch's office was actively engaged in the early negotiations for the deal, but lawyers for both sides were unable to reach an agreement.

"The attorney general was fully aware of the disposition which the court intended to impose in these cases long before his letter was drafted and surreptitiously given to the media," he said.

The Derderians' lawyer, Kathleen Hagerty, said Lynch's office proposed the terms last month and again this month. She gave The Associated Press a handwritten document dated Sept. 7 that she said was given to her by a prosecutor that lays out nearly identical terms.

The terms are the same except for the type of plea. The note indicates the brothers would enter an "Alford plea" in which a defendant maintains innocence while admitting that enough evidence exists for a conviction. Instead, the brothers will plead no contest, a plea that has the effect of a guilty plea, although guilt is neither admitted nor denied.

Hagerty said she was given the note after she asked for the prosecutor to put the terms in writing.

Darigan said he regrets the "shock, anger, disbelief and sense of betrayal some of the families must feel because of the despicable action taken by the anonymous source within the attorney general's office."

Many family members of those killed were upset that they learned about the pleas on the evening news or from reporters.

Mike Healey, a spokesman for Lynch, did not return telephone messages or an e-mail seeking comment on the note and Darigan's remarks. However, Lynch said he would speak with reporters later Thursday.

The prison term to be imposed on Michael Derderian is the same one received in May by band manager Daniel Biechele, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Biechele set off the pyrotechnics that ignited the fatal blaze.

The Derderians and Biechele were each indicted in December 2003 on 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The pleas from each of the defendants, the only three indicted, remove the prospect of a criminal trial arising from the fire.