Black Sunday Convictions Overturned 5 Years After Tragedy

Tenants found not guilty on all charges

Tuesday, Feb 23, 2010  |  Updated 2:19 PM EDT
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Black Sunday Convictions Overturned 5 Years After Tragedy

WNBC

Two firefighters were killed in the "Black Sunday" fire in 2005.

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A judge today overturned the convictions of the owner and former landlord of a Bronx building where two firefighters died in 2005 when they couldn't escape a blaze -- a tragedy prosecutors said was the result of illegal partitions in an apartment.

A jury last year had convicted landlord Cesar Rios the corporation that owns the building with criminally negligent homicide and reckless homicide last year. Today, a Bronx judge overturned that ruling, saying prosecutors had failed to prove that Rios and the building's owner knew about the illegal partitions that led to the tragedy.

Firefighters Curtis Meyran and John Bellew were trapped and jumped from a fourth-floor window while battling the 2005 blaze. Both died from their injuries in what became known as the "Black Sunday" case.

“An individual or entity cannot be convicted of a crime without evidence of actual knowledge,” Judge Margaret Clancy ruled Tuesday.

Read the decision

Two tenants -- Rafael Castillo and Caridad Coste-- had put up the illegal partitions in their apartment at 234 E. 178th St, a divider that blocked the fire escape.  They were acquitted last year of criminal charges.

Defense attorneys had argued that it was a "chaotic response" by the fire department -- combined with frozen fire hydrants and broken water hoses -- that led to the deaths.

David J. Goldstein, the lawyer for Cesar Rios, who sold the building two years before the fire, told theNew York Times the decision was just.  Rios faced up to four years in prison.

“There was absolutely no evidence that either of these defendants were aware of the conditions in the third-floor apartment of that building,” he said. “In order to be criminally negligent or reckless, you have to know that a condition exists," he told the Times.

But firefighters who attended the hearing had another opinion. 

“It’s a total disgrace,” said retired Firefighter Jeff Cool, who jumped from the same window and narrowly survived told the Times.“Two firemen are dead, and justice wasn’t served here."

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