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Conn. Prosecutor Weighs Charges in Christmas Blaze

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A prosecutor is deciding whether to file criminal charges in the deaths of three girls and their grandparents on Christmas morning in an accidental blaze that authorities say was started after a contractor discarded a bag of fireplace ashes at the Connecticut home.

The case has been followed closely in part because of the high profile of the girl's mother, fashion advertising executive Madonna Badger. She survived the fire along with her friend Michael Borcina, a contractor who had been renovating the $1.7 million Victorian home on Long Island Sound.

While investigators say the fire was accidental, it's not uncommon for people to be charged with crimes such as involuntary manslaughter for unintentionally starting deadly fires.

David Cohen, who has been Stamford's top prosecutor for more than a decade, received a report from police investigators last week and has declined to comment on the case. He has worked on other high-profile cases, including a chimpanzee mauling in which he declined to pursue charges against the animal's owner. Attorneys who have worked with him say he won't be swayed by factors such as the family's affluence or the intense media scrutiny.

"His decision-making process is never a rush to judgment," said Howard Ehring, a Stamford public defender. "I've heard him say many times we don't want to prosecute an innocent person nor do we want to prosecute someone who is overcharged."

Authorities have said they believe Borcina placed the ashes in or near an entryway, near the trash.

The fire killed Badger's 7-year-old twins, Grace and Sarah Badger, 9-year-old daughter, Lily, and Badger's parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson.

It is unusual for police to make arrests in connection with fires started by improperly discarded fireplace ashes, but there have been examples of relatives being held responsible for other fires.

In Connecticut, police say they haven't made a recommendation about possible criminal charges.

Legal experts say if Cohen decides to prosecute, potential charges could include reckless manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. A manslaughter charge has a high standard in which authorities must show a person was aware of a substantial risk and disregarded it. For criminally negligent homicide, authorities must only prove that the person should have realized there was a danger, said William Dunlap, a Quinnipiac law professor.

Borcina could face heightened scrutiny because of his background as a contractor and his likely knowledge of the dangers of placing the embers near the house, said Stephan Seegar, a Stamford-based criminal defense attorney.

Borcina's attorney, Gene Riccio, declined to comment.

Badger's attorney, Stan Twardy, said, "I'm confident Mr. Cohen will exercise appropriate judgment in this matter."

The investigation also looked at issues related to the renovation and whether smoke detectors were in the house. There were plans for hard-wired smoke alarms, but they had not been hooked up, officials have said. It was unclear whether battery-operated akarns were being used.

The state building code requires smoke detectors in new home construction, according to Joseph V. Cassidy, acting state building inspector. It also requires that smoke detectors be added in older homes as part of most residential additions or interior alterations, he said.

Prosecutors met Wednesday with the girls' father, Matthew Badger, a television commercial director who lives in New York, and Badger's attorney.

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