Berkeley tragedy: DA to outline investigation into collapse

Nancy O’Malley to explain which parties she plans to investigate over Berkeley balcony

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley will hold a press conference in Oakland on Thursday to outline the parameters of her office’s investigation into the balcony collapse and which parties it will investigate.

Ms O'Malley's second-in-command, chief assistant district attorney Kevin Dunleavy, told The Irish Times the investigation would examine whether a crime had been committed leading up to the collapse which resulted in the deaths of six young Irish students and seriously injured seven others.

The Office of the Alameda County District Attorney, which is responsible for prosecuting crime in Berkeley, California on Wednesday opened an investigation into the balcony collapse.

Mr Dunleavy said that the office would be contacting City of Berkeley officials and police and would try to assess whether a crime had been committed.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Mr Dunleavy stressed the investigation by the office, staffed by 150 lawyers, was still at a preliminary and “very early” stage, and the inquiry by the county prosecutors was being carried out to “see where it leads.

“We will look into it to see if there is anything that would rise to a level of an actual crime,” said Mr Dunleavy.

Five Dublin students working on J-1 summer visas in the US - Eoghan Culligan, Lorcán Miller, Niccolai Schuster, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke - and Ms Burke's Irish-American cousin Ashley Donohoe from Rohnert Park, California, were killed when the balcony they were standing on collapsed during a party early on the morning of June 16th.

Another seven students were injured, a number seriously, in the balcony collapse. Six of the students are still being treated in hospital.

Criminal allegations in the US are usually referred to a district attorney for prosecution by an outside agency, normally law enforcement agencies such as the police or the FBI.

Mr Dunleavy said that the balcony collapse was an unusual case as it could involve a construction defect that would be investigated by the district attorney’s officer, rather than police, to see whether any crime was committed.

He said the district attorney’s office would examine a report by the City of Berkeley’s building and safety division released yesterday which found that the balcony’s deck joist ends protruding from the exterior wall of the apartment “appeared to be severely dry rotted.”

“If there is anything there that is criminal, the DA would look into it,” said Mr Dunleavy.

In the aftermath of last week’s tragedy, City of Berkeley officials have recommended changes to building regulations including a requirement that builders create an opening to the underside of enclosed balconies so that they can be periodically inspected.

The building inspectors also recommended that balconies exposed to weather and the structural beams of wood that support floors exposed to weather should be built of naturally durable wood, preservative-treated wood, corrosion resistant steel or similarly approved materials.

There are 58 counties in California and the district attorney serves as the chief law enforcement officer of each county.

Teresa Drenick, assistant district attorney at Ms O'Malley's office, told The Irish Times last week that generally it was rare for incidents involving construction defects to result in criminal prosecutions in the county. This has not, however, stopped the office looking into the balcony collapse to examine whether a crime had been committed.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent