Homicide By Arson: Morally Guilty, Legally Innocent?

Jun 2014
60,492
34,751
Cleveland, Ohio
#1


She saw something, and said nothing.

The Bronx mom whose 3-year-old son ignited a fire that killed a dozen people bolted the burning building without alerting residents to the fast-spreading inferno, her next-door neighbor charged Saturday.

“She did not yell,” recalled an aggravated Shevon Stewart, 44, who lost four family members in the Thursday night blaze. “You (are) the one, and you don’t call for help? ...

“Call somebody! If you don’t have a phone, knock on a door. Do something!”

Stewart, who lived in the first-floor apartment next to the mom, said the woman’s only show of concern was a feeble and failed attempt to spread the alarm.

“I can’t see her but I hear her: ‘Fire,’” Stewart said softly, imitating the woman’s halfhearted warning.

The still-unidentified mother managed to escape unscathed with her 3-year-old son and a 2-year-old child.

Fire officials said the unattended boy set off the killer blaze while fiddling with the gas stove. The child “had a history” of turning the burners on and off, said FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro.

The mother exacerbated the dangerous situation by leaving the apartment door open, with the fire and smoke soon swirling through the five-story building via an adjoining staircase.

“I am so angry,” said Stewart. “I don’t have the words. I don’t know what to say.”

As firefighters responded to the raging five-alarm blaze, Stewart watched the woman walk across the street and sit on the curb as building residents scurried onto fire escapes.

The less fortunate died inside their apartments or were discovered by first responders in the hallways or on the staircase.

Four victims, including a Bronx woman clutching her 7-month-old granddaughter, were found dead inside their bathtub once the blaze was finally extinguished.

*Snip*

Stewart recounted her attempts to warn relatives in the building about the fire that quickly reduced visibility to zero.

She first tried to call upstairs to her sister’s apartment, and later rushed back into the burning building to bang on Young’s apartment door.

“I can’t see nothing because my eyes start burning me now,” recalled Stewart. “I kicked the door two times. I start kicking it, not knocking. Kicking it.”

Halladene, who lived on the first floor of the building as well, recalled seeing the 3-year-old boy and his mother inside the apartment many times before the fire.

“I would pass by and hear the mother screaming at the kid,” she recalled. “Sometimes he would peek his head outside the door and I would say, ‘Get back in there.’”


*Snip*

Note: The article goes on to identify the victims. It is heartbreaking to read.
Bronx fire-starter's mom didn't alert neighbors to blaze: tenant - NY Daily News

So, to recap, the allegations are:

1. Mom had custody of a 3 year old boy with a propensity to start fires, whom she regularly failed to supervise.

2. Mom spread the fire in her apartment throughout the building by leaving her apartment door open.

3. Mom did not raise the alarm with her neighbors, or did so only after firefighters had arrived and then only in a perfunctory manner.

4. Mom's 3 year old son started a fire on his stove that ultimately killed 12 of his neighbors, injured others and destroyed the building and its contents.

Is Mom guilty of any crime, if these facts as alleged can be proven?

I don't think so, and I am willing to discuss changing the criminal law so that others like her would be prosecuted.

Your thoughts?
 

Ian Jeffrey

Council Hall
Mar 2013
74,532
43,260
Vulcan, down the street from Darth Vader
#2
Is Mom guilty of any crime, if these facts as alleged can be proven?

I don't think so, and I am willing to discuss changing the criminal law so that others like her would be prosecuted.
I would have to review NY state law to answer this question, as would anyone else. Is it a crime not to warn people of danger? She did not set the fire. On the other hand, there could hypothetically be a negligent homicide charge, but this will depend on the text of the relevant NY statute(s).
 
Likes: 2 people
Sep 2014
4,633
1,386
South FL
#3
I would have to review NY state law to answer this question, as would anyone else. Is it a crime not to warn people of danger? She did not set the fire. On the other hand, there could hypothetically be a negligent homicide charge, but this will depend on the text of the relevant NY statute(s).
I have never even pondered the criminal culpability of a failure to warn. The duty to warn in tort law is relatively well established of course.
 
Likes: 1 person
Jun 2014
60,492
34,751
Cleveland, Ohio
#4
I would have to review NY state law to answer this question, as would anyone else. Is it a crime not to warn people of danger? She did not set the fire. On the other hand, there could hypothetically be a negligent homicide charge, but this will depend on the text of the relevant NY statute(s).
Section 125.10 Criminally negligent homicide reads:

A person is guilty of criminally negligent homicide when, with criminal negligence, he causes the death of another person.
Criminally negligent homicide is a class E felony.

Section 15.05(4) reads:

“Criminal negligence.”  A person acts with criminal negligence with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists.  The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.


New York Consolidated Laws, Penal Law - PEN § 15.05 | FindLaw

So, I guess the question under NY law is what (if any) is the applicable standard of care for a reasonably prudent neighbor, or is there one?

Under Old English Common Law, without a duty of care, there can be no legal consequences to anyone for failure to warn or failure to rescue. Not sure whether, in any US state, a neighbor owes everyone else in a highrise any duty of care.

My crappy little research indicates these neighbors could not even sue this mom for civil damages, nevermind have her arrested for a crime.

And if that's true, I don't think it's a good result.
 
Jun 2014
60,492
34,751
Cleveland, Ohio
#5
I have never even pondered the criminal culpability of a failure to warn. The duty to warn in tort law is relatively well established of course.
Between strangers? (Although the law of NY may recognize that neighbors are not perfect strangers; IDK.)
 
Nov 2014
30,462
5,606
North Carolina
#6




Bronx fire-starter's mom didn't alert neighbors to blaze: tenant - NY Daily News

So, to recap, the allegations are:

1. Mom had custody of a 3 year old boy with a propensity to start fires, whom she regularly failed to supervise.

2. Mom spread the fire in her apartment throughout the building by leaving her apartment door open.

3. Mom did not raise the alarm with her neighbors, or did so only after firefighters had arrived and then only in a perfunctory manner.

4. Mom's 3 year old son started a fire on his stove that ultimately killed 12 of his neighbors, injured others and destroyed the building and its contents.

Is Mom guilty of any crime, if these facts as alleged can be proven?

I don't think so, and I am willing to discuss changing the criminal law so that others like her would be prosecuted.

Your thoughts?
She'll be lucky to escape prosecution.

3. "Recklessly." A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or
to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is
aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk
that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk
must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a
gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person
would observe in the situation. A person who creates such a risk but is
unaware thereof solely by reason of voluntary intoxication also acts
recklessly with respect thereto.


Her kid had a history of turning the burners on and off on the stove - so she was aware of the dangerous situation yet consciously disregarded it.

So there is a case to be made here for negligent homicide.
 
Likes: 1 person
Jun 2014
60,492
34,751
Cleveland, Ohio
#7
She'll be lucky to escape prosecution.

3. "Recklessly." A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or
to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is
aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk
that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk
must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a
gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person
would observe in the situation. A person who creates such a risk but is
unaware thereof solely by reason of voluntary intoxication also acts
recklessly with respect thereto.


Her kid had a history of turning the burners on and off on the stove - so she was aware of the dangerous situation yet consciously disregarded it.

So there is a case to be made here for negligent homicide.
If the allegations are true, I hope you are correct.
 

Ian Jeffrey

Council Hall
Mar 2013
74,532
43,260
Vulcan, down the street from Darth Vader
#8
I have never even pondered the criminal culpability of a failure to warn. The duty to warn in tort law is relatively well established of course.
That is why I said "hypothetically." In any event, tort law would not help in this situation, as the prospective defendant is almost certainly judgment proof.
 
Likes: 1 person

Ian Jeffrey

Council Hall
Mar 2013
74,532
43,260
Vulcan, down the street from Darth Vader
#9
So, I guess the question under NY law is what (if any) is the applicable standard of care for a reasonably prudent neighbor, or is there one?
I do not believe it would be relevant, because there must be a duty to warn in the first place, such that failure to warn is actionable. And I do not believe it is, because the statute expressly says "causes," and a causational nexus cannot be drawn between the mother's failure to act and the death. Certainly, the death resulted, but the cause was the child, not the mother.

And as publius3 noted, this could of course justify a civil suit, but that would not be practical. The most the plaintiff(s) could get would be a judgment that could not be collected on.
 
Likes: 1 person

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