PORTLAND, Maine - A Maine man is about to stand before a judge in a trial that could result in the first time in the state’s history that a landlord is convicted for manslaughter in a tenant death stemming from negligent building operation.
Gregory Nisbet was indicted for manslaughter stemming from the November 2014 fire that killed six people in Portland. His trial, an outgrowth of the deadliest fire in Maine in 40 years, gets underway on Monday in the city.
The case is expected to address whether the home was being used as a legal duplex or an illegal rooming house. Nisbet, who has requested a bench trial with no jury, has contended that it was the former.
Manslaughter is punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a $50,000 fine in Maine. Matthew Nichols, an attorney for Nisbet, has said he expects the trial to be complex because of the questions relating to the use of the house.
“In this case, there’s a whole separate set of legal issues to decide,” he said last month. “For example, what was the use of that building?”
The Office of the Maine Attorney General is prosecuting the case. A spokesman for the office declined to comment. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese said last month that prosecutors were confident in not just the manslaughter charges but also code violations associated with the fire.
The house has been razed since the fire, which occurred following a Halloween party. Investigators said they found the fire started on a porch because of improperly disposed smoking materials.
Investigators have also said the house lacked functioning smoke detectors. A lawsuit stemming from the fire also states that an emergency exit was impassable.
Nisbet’s case had been the subject of plea negotiations, but they broke down days before a grand jury indicted him on the manslaughter charges and four criminal violations of the life safety code.
The fire killed residents Nicole Finlay, David Bragdon Jr., Ashley Thomas and Christopher Conlee; Topsham resident Maelisha Jackson; and Rockland resident Steven Summers. Several others were able to escape.
Families are also suing Nisbet in civil court for failing to keep the building safe.
Justin Irish, a resident of the Noyes Street home who was not present at the time of the fire, said he thinks a stiff sentence could help provide the victims’ families with some justice. He said he is not involved in the lawsuits against Nisbet.
“He doesn’t think he’s accountable for it. I feel as though things could have been different,” he said. “It will show to him and other landlords to pick up their game a little bit about safety.”