The Portland landlord convicted of a misdemeanor for his role in a deadly house fire expects to be in jail soon.
On Thursday, Maine’s highest court rejected the appeal of Gregory Nisbet, who was found to have violated building safety code at the property where an accidental blaze killed six people in 2014.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s affirmation of a lower court’s decision may mark the end of the legal fights that sprung from the ashes of the state’s deadliest fire in decades.
[Landlord convicted in deadly fire takes appeal to Maine’s top court]
In 2016, Nisbet was found guilty of the code violation but acquitted of a slew of other misdemeanors and six counts of manslaughter. A judge sentenced him to serve 90 days in jail and pay a $1,000 fine for the violation, but he has challenged the conviction at every opportunity and remained at liberty while appealing his case to the high court.
On Thursday, Nisbet’s lawyer, Luke Rioux, said he expects his client to begin serving the sentence soon, but that they are also “discussing options for further appeal and other post conviction proceedings.”
“Nisbet wants to express his profound sadness at the loss of life caused by the fire at his Noyes Street building,” Rioux said. “That tragedy is on his mind every day and will be with him for the rest of his life.”
Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren convicted Nisbet of the code violation because the windows on the third floor of his building at 20 Noyes St. were too small to offer a second means of escape. Three of the people who died in the fire were found on that floor, while two others were found elsewhere in the home and one died later in the hospital.
Nisbet challenged this finding on number of grounds, first in a request for a new trial and then the appeal. But the high court ruled Thursday that a building contractor warning Nisbet about the size of the windows was enough evidence “to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Nisbet was aware that the third-floor windows were impermissibly small.”
Nisbet’s case was an unusual instance of a landlord being held criminally liable for deaths in an accidental fire at their property and has been followed closely by Maine landlords. In punishing Nisbet’s “generally neglectful style” the courts have set a precedent that could affect many other landlords, said Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlords Association
“This ruling seems to set a [precedent] that nearly every landlord in Portland should be prepared to spend 90 days in jail,” Vitalius said. “I expect one could find a misdemeanor level code violation in nearly every 100-year-old building in Portland.”
Lawyers for the families of some of the people killed in the fire did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the decision.
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