No criminal charges after Berkeley balcony tragedy investigation

NewsBy Sunday World
The scene of the tragedy
The scene of the tragedy

No one will face charges over the Berkeley balcony collapse, which claimed the lives of six Irish students and seriously injured seven more.

The news was announced by a district attorney in California today, following a nine-month investigation into the tragedy.

Alameda County DA Nancy O'Malley said there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal manslaughter charges against any one individual or company.

On June 16 last year, six students died when the balcony they had been standing upon collapsed as young people celebrated a 21st birthday party.

The victims of the Berkeley tragedy (top left to bottom right): Eoghan Culligan, Olivia Burke, Ashley Donohoe, Lorcan Miller, Nick Schuster and Eimear Walsh

"This is not a decision that I came to lightly," she said in a statement released today.

"It is the culmination of months of consultation with my team of attorneys. It follows extensive review of reports, both legal and factual, and numerous meetings with investigators and experts."

Ms O'Malley said that the likely cause of the tragedy - water being trapped in the balcony deck during construction, leading to dry rot – had been established.

She said there appeared to be many contributory causes of this, including the types of material that were used and the very wet weather Berkeley experienced during the months of construction.

"The responsibility for this failure likely extends to many of the parties involved in the construction or maintenance of the building," she said.

However, Ms O'Malley said that proving beyond a reasonable doubt that any one party was guilty of manslaughter would not be possible.

"In order to file a manslaughter case based on criminal negligence, the district attorney must be satisfied that any defendant or defendants acted with gross or reckless conduct akin to a disregard for human life, and that the deadly consequences of those actions were reasonably foreseeable," she said.

"Any such charges would have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to twelve impartial jurors, all of whom must unanimously agree.

"Having carefully considered all the known evidence, and conducting an in-depth legal analysis based on expert opinion, the office has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to bring criminal manslaughter charges against any one individual or company."

In making the announcement, Ms O'Malley said that she was keenly aware of the devastation suffered by the victims and their families.

"Not a day has passed since the tragedy of June 16 that I have not thought of the victims and their families," she said.

"Friends, families and entire communities both in California and in Ireland have been affected by the horror of that day."

Ms O'Malley said that over the past nine months, her office had devoted substantial resources to determining the cause of the collapse, the extent to which the collapse was foreseeable and the degree of culpability that may attach to the various parties involved.

"An assigned team of experienced prosecutors and investigators has been aided in this work by investigators from multiple state agencies, including the California Contractors State License Board, the California Board of Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists, and the California Board of Architects.

"Industry experts in the fields of structural engineering, waterproofing and architecture have participated extensively in this investigation.

"In addition to working closely with these industry experts, this office's investigation encompassed extensive witness interviews, and careful review of building plans, logs, inspection records and maintenance records."

Ms O'Malley said that a central component of the investigation involved the "destructive testing" of the balconies and the building itself.

An outside construction company was retained to carefully transport the balconies to a warehouse specially set up so the testing and analysis could be conducted.

"To ensure transparency and avoid prejudice, this testing was observed by representatives of the victims and their families, as well as representatives of the many different companies involved in the construction, maintenance, and ownership of this apartment complex," she said.

"After studying the balcony remnants and reviewing forensic lab reports, experts working with this office believe that the primary reason the balcony collapsed was because water had been trapped in the balcony deck during construction, leading to eventual and extensive dry rot damage."

Ms O'Malley said that the families of the dead and injured were informed prior to her announcement today.

In a statement today, Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said his thoughts were "first and foremost with the families of the six young people who lost their lives in Berkeley last June".

His said that his department will "carefully consider" the details of the District Attorney's findings.

He said that the investigation "shone a vital light on the circumstances and factors that contributed directly and indirectly to the collapse of the balcony".

Mr Flanagan also said that the investigation was an "important step in a process, the ultimate objective of which is to ensure that a tragedy such as Berkeley never occurs again."