AUGUSTA, Maine — Judges on Maine’s top court peppered a Portland landlord’s lawyer with questions Tuesday, appearing skeptical of his appeal of the only criminal conviction to come out of Maine’s deadliest fire in decades.
A lawyer for Gregory Nisbet told the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that the wrong standard had been used in convicting the landlord of a misdemeanor for his role in the 2014 blaze.
In 2016, a judge acquitted Nisbet of six counts of manslaughter and several misdemeanors, following a trial that sought to hold him criminally liable for deaths in the accidental fire. But he was found guilty of a fire code violation because the windows on the third floor of his Noyes Street duplex were too small to provide a second means of escape. Three of the six people who died in the fire were found on that floor.
Nisbet’s lawyer, Luke Rioux of Portland, argued that the third-floor windows should have been assessed using size requirements smaller than the ones that were applied at trial. But a state prosecutor told the court that trial evidence shows that the windows were too small under either the larger standards for buildings built after 1976 or the smaller ones used on older buildings.
“It didn’t meet the height and width standard in any event, so what difference does it make?” Justice Joseph Jabar asked Rioux.
Nisbet’s building was built well before 1976 and Rioux contended that if the proper standard had been applied at trial his client defense would have been mounted differently. Specifically, the landlord’s legal team might have offered evidence or asked further questions about whether it would require “special effort” to remove the window panes or otherwise make the third-floor windows viable escape routes, the lawyer said.
Nisbet was sentenced to serve 90 days in jail for his conviction but has remained free as a series of legal maneuvers culminating in his appeal have wended through the courts. In February, he paid civil settlements to the families of the people killed in the fire and to one survivor.
The landlord’s appeal was heard by a five-judge panel, as Chief Justice Leigh Saufley and Justice Andrew Mead recused themselves. About 15 people attended the hearing, including Nisbet and several relatives of those killed in the fire.
The judges pressed both Rioux and Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, but spent more time questioning the defense lawyer. The court reserved its ruling for a later date, but after the hearing Macomber seemed optimistic that the case, which has stretched on for years, will finally break the state’s way.
“I’m confident that the court will affirm the trial court’s decision and that Mr. Nisbet should be going to jail in short order,” the prosecutor said.
Follow Jake Bleiberg at: @JZBleiberg
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