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Families of Berkeley balcony victims continue quest to uncover truth after decision not to bring criminal charges

People react during a memorial for those who lost their lives after a balcony gave way in Berkeley, California on June 17, 2015. Dry rot and overcrowding could be responsible for the collapse of the balcony that sent six young Irish nationals plummeting to their deaths. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
People react during a memorial a day after the tragedy (Photo: Getty Images)

THE California District Attorney will not be bringing any criminal charges in connection with last summer’s balcony tragedy in Berkeley that killed six Irish students.

Seven other Irish students were critically injured in the incident when a fourth floor balcony of an apartment collapsed on June 16, sending them tumbling 40ft down to street level.

They had been attending a 21st birthday party at the time.

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Irish students Niccolai Shuster, Eoghan Culligan, Lorcán Miller, Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh and Irish-American Ashley Donohoe, all aged 21-22, lost their lives in the incident.

Alameda District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said that after a nine-month investigation her office had concluded that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal manslaughter charges against any one individual or company.

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

“I am keenly aware of the devastation and injuries each victim and each family suffered and continues to confront. Friends, families and entire communities both in California and Ireland have been affected by the horror of that day.”

Ms O’Malley explained that the decision not to bring criminal manslaughter charges was not one that she came to lightly.

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

The remains of the fallen balcony (Photo: Getty Images)
The remains of the fallen balcony (Photo: Getty Images)

A major part of the investigation involved the destructive testing on the remains of the balcony and the building itself.

This was conducted at a warehouse where analysis of the balcony took place and was observed by representatives of the victims, their families and the construction companies.

Following the forensic investigations, the District Attorney’s office concluded that the balcony collapsed because water had been trapped in the deck during the construction phase. This led to eventual and extensive dry rot damage.

Many factors contributed to this, including: the types of materials that were used (although none of the material was prohibited by building regulation) and the very wet weather in Berkeley during construction.

In order to file a manslaughter case, Ms O’Malley needed to be satisfied that an individual or company acted with disregard for human life and that the deadly consequences of those actions were reasonably foreseeable.

Having considered all of the evidence the office concluded that there was insufficient evidence to bring the manslaughter charges.

The District Attorney’s office said it would continue to work with the Californian authorities, industry leaders and state legislators to consider amending building codes and inspection laws so that such a tragedy would not occur again.

Lawyers representing the family of Ms Donohoe – who died in the tragedy – said that they were disappointed with the outcome.

A statement from law firm Rains Lucia Stern said: “The Donohoe family’s disappointment stems from their belief that the criminal justice system would act as a deterrent for other corporations and builders to engage in similar grossly negligent behavior.

“There is a deep desire for this case to act as a lesson for other builders and avoid a tragedy like this from happening again.”

berkeley victims-n
The victims of the Berkeley tragedy

The families are now relying on the civil proceedings to obtain justice for their loved ones.

In a statement the lawyers representing the other families of those who died and suffered injuries said that most legal experts had not expected criminal charges given the high burden of proof required to secure a conviction.

Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger said the findings of the District Attorney’s office would benefit their civil actions.

The statement continued: “It remains our clients’ quest to uncover the truth, to hold those responsible accountable, and to bring about changes to industry practices to prevent such a needless tragedy from recurring.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said his department would consider carefully the details of the District Attorney’s findings.

In a statement, he said: “While the District Attorney’s investigation did not find sufficient proof to take separate criminal proceedings, it has shone a vital light on the circumstances and factors that contributed directly and indirectly to the collapse of the balcony.

“This investigation is an important step in a process, the ultimate objective of which is to ensure that a tragedy such as Berkeley never occurs again”.

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Nemesha Balasundaram
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Nemesha Balasundaram is a Reporter with The Irish Post. Follow her on Twitter @nemeshaB

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