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The 48 victims of the Stardust fire.

Jury to begin deliberations into Stardust fire next week

They were given legal guidance on the five verdicts open to them in their deliberations.

THE JURY IN the Stardust inquests will begin their deliberations next Wednesday into the fatal fire at the nightclub in 1981.

They were given legal guidance on the five verdicts open to them in their deliberations, and were told that no verdict can apportion blame to any person for the deaths of the 48 people who perished in the fire.

Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane told the jury that the verdicts they can return are accidental death, death by misadventure, an open verdict, a narrative verdict and unlawful killing. Dr Cullinane said the latter was markedly different from the other four and if the jury returned this verdict, they had formed the view that the law had been broken in a serious fashion.

“There are no sides at an inquest. An inquest is not a trial as a verdict or a finding against any person, it is a fact finding exercise,” said Dr Cullinane, today telling the jury in the Dublin District Coroner’s Court that they must now consider all of the evidence they have heard since the inquests began last April.

She reminded them that proceedings in an inquest are inquisitorial and designed to establish certain facts and return verdicts based on the evidence heard.

Referring to the Coroners Act of 1962, Dr Cullinane said that the purpose of an inquest is to establish the identity of the deceased person and how, where and when their death occurred.

In addition to the findings on identity, date and place of death and the circumstances surrounding the death, the jury must record a verdict in relation to each of the 48 people who lost their lives when fire consumed the Stardust nightclub in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, 1981.

Dr Cullinane said there are a number of verdicts available, and it was most important for the jury to be aware of the legal rules they must consider. She said that as set down in the Coroners Act, questions of civil or criminal liability shall not be considered or investigated at an inquest.

“I cannot direct you that there is evidence that a person has been guilty of a crime or guilty of negligence, nor can you conclude in your verdict or in your findings that a person has committed a crime or has been guilty of negligence,” she said.

She said that the jury have heard evidence of how certain things were done or could have been done differently in the Stardust, however, neither she nor they were allowed to record any conclusion that attaches criminal responsibility or civil responsibility to any person.

“Neither the verdict nor any rider to the verdict at an inquest nor any findings shall contain censure or exoneration of any person,” she said, going on to explain that censure means to disapprove or blame while exonerate means to clear anyone of blame.

“No person can be named in your findings or verdict as being responsible for any of the deaths that occurred in the Stardust, as that would clearly be a breach of the prohibition on censure or blame of any person. It would be contrary to the Coroners Act and your verdict could be challenged by any person who had been censured or blamed by your verdict,” she said.

She went on to explain that the verdict and the findings are about acts and omissions, not about who committed those acts and omissions.

“It’s about what happened, what was done, what was not done, not about who did or did not do those things,” she said.

Outlining the findings that the jury must make about each deceased, Dr Cullinane said that it was for the jury to determine that they were satisfied as to the identity of each deceased person and establish when and where the death occurred.

She said that reference should be made to the pronouncement of death, reminding the jury that some of the victims were pronounced dead at the hospital and others were pronounced dead at the scene. Concerning how the death occurred, the coroner told the jury to make reference to the medical or pathological cause of death with regards to the pathological evidence they had heard.

Dr Cullinane next outlined the five verdicts open to the jury. The first of these was accidental death, which relates to something happening suddenly and without warning. She said the standard of proof in this verdict is the balance of probabilities.

Death by misadventure is a similar verdict to accidental death, however there is the addition of risk factors that have contributed to the fatal outcome. She said the jury could return this verdict if they decided that the fire broke out accidentally, but there were risk factors present that contributed to the deaths. The legal standard for this verdict is the balance of probabilities.

The next verdict was unlawful killing, which Dr Cullinane said was markedly different from the other verdicts. She said if the jury returned this verdict, they had formed the view that the law had been broken in a serious fashion.

She reminded the jury that it is not permissible in a coroner’s inquest that any person be held to have unlawfully killed the deceased. She said that an inquest is not a trial and any findings of this nature would be challengeable. She said that there is a very specific test that must be applied before the jury can return this verdict.

“You must find that there has been a failure by a person or persons to a very high degree to observe such a course of action as experience shows to be necessary if substantial injury to others is to be avoided, and that such failure was a substantial cause of the death,” she said.

Unlike the other verdicts, Dr Cullinane said that a verdict of unlawful killing could only be returned if the jury were satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt.

The jury were told to apply the standards of the time, 1981, and not today, and conclude that any failures were to a very high degree and were a substantial cause of the death, but she reminded them that they must not identify any person or persons in their verdict, findings or recommendations.

The fourth verdict available is an open verdict, which Dr Cullinane said the jury could return if they felt the facts established do not fully explain the manner in which the deaths occurred. The final verdict available is the narrative verdict, which the coroner said may be chosen where the evidence is regarded as complex and multifactorial, with many issues being significant contributors to the cause of death. She said that the rule about not identifying any person applies here, too.

Dr Cullinane told the jury that in returning their verdicts, they could not make any comment or statement that does not assist in answering how the deceased died, nor should they say that any crime occurred.

She said that a verdict must be recorded on each of the deceased individually, and the verdict may only be returned when all the jury are in agreement.

She added that the jury may make recommendations aimed at preventing future similar deaths, but again these recommendations cannot contain any blame or exoneration of a person.

At the conclusion of her charge, Dr Cullinane said that to sit on this jury brings with it great responsibility.

“You must approach your task in an objective manner which is based on the law as I outlined it to you and the facts that you heard in evidence,” she said, telling the jury that they must be dispassionate and clinical in their approach and put emotions aside.

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