New: Victim's Family Upset that No Charges Filed in Berkeley Balcony Cas

Jeff Shuttleworth/ Scott Morris(BCN)
Tuesday March 29, 2016 - 08:36:00 PM

Family members of a Rohnert Park woman who died in the collapse of a balcony at a Berkeley apartment complex last year said today that they are disappointed that the Alameda County District Attorney's Office has decided not to pursue criminal charges in the matter. 

The family of 22-year-old Ashley Donohoe said in a statement that they "continue to grieve their loss and were hopeful that the DA would pursue criminal charges against those who were responsible for this tragedy." 

The family said their "disappointment stems from their belief that the criminal justice system would act as a deterrent for other corporations and builders to engage in similarly grossly negligent behavior." 

Thirteen people attending a birthday party, including many visiting Irish students, were standing on the fourth-floor balcony at the Library Gardens apartment complex at 2020 Kittredge St. when it collapsed in the early morning hours of June 16, 2015. Six people -- Donohoe and five Irish students -- were killed and seven others were seriously injured. 

District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said today that her office has reviewed the case over the last nine months, conducting a forensic inspection of the deck and a thorough review of the legal issues involved to determine if there was criminal negligence in the balcony's construction or maintenance warranting potential manslaughter charges. 

But O'Malley said she concluded that there would be no criminal prosecution even though her office's investigation came to the same conclusion that the city of Berkeley's investigation did, which is that the collapse was caused by water intrusion that had rotted support beams inside the deck. 

There were many contributing causes for the moisture intrusion, including the materials used, which were not prohibited by the building code, and wet weather during construction. There were numerous people who potentially could be held responsible in the construction and maintenance of the building, prosecutors said. 

"In order to file a manslaughter case based on criminal negligence, the District Attorney must be satisfied that any defendant or defendants acted with gross or reckless conduct akin to a disregard for human life, and that the deadly consequences of those actions were reasonably foreseeable," O'Malley said. 

After the collapse, the Berkeley City Council passed stricter construction codes for outdoor structures and required inspections for all existing structures. The inspections determined that 402 of 2,176 structures inspected needed work. 

Lawsuits filed by the victims and their families alleged that there were signs of issues with the balcony for years, including mushrooms growing on it, indicating the moisture intrusion, and the balcony leaning when people were standing on it. 

Prosecutors said they will work with state officials considering imposing stricter oversight of contractors and new building codes. 

Prosecutors also said they met with the families of each victim prior to making today's public announcement. 

Donohoe's family members said they believe, "There was a series of events that led to this tragedy which could have been avoided if the balcony was properly designed, constructed and inspected." 

The family added that the district attorney's investigation has resulted in determinations and findings that appear to establish culpability for many of the defendants in their pending lawsuit. 

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, whose son works in the district attorney's office, said in a statement, "I cannot say I am surprised by the District Attorney's decision." 

"I knew from the start that it would be difficult to reach the legal threshold for a case of manslaughter due to criminal negligence," Bates said. "Nevertheless I am optimistic that the safeguards we have adopted in Berkeley in the wake of the balcony collapse, including regular inspections and stricter building standards, will help us make sure that such a tragedy doesn't happen again." 

The Contractors State License Board said today that it is completing its nine-month-long investigation of five construction companies that were involved in the building of the apartment complex where the balcony collapsed. 

The board said its investigation will determine if administrative actions will be recommended against the five licensed contractors. 

"The main questions we're trying to answer are if the various contractors involved followed the architectural plans for the balcony, including the use of the proper building materials, and whether workmanship standards were followed," David Fogt, the board's chief of enforcement, said in a statement. 

Fogt said if proper procedures weren't involved, "it's a clear violation of the law."