A little more than a month after a record settlement was announced for the 2013 Center City building collapse in Pennsylvania, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is asking District Attorney Seth Williams to consider reducing the sentences of the only two men criminally charged in the case. The two men, one a contractor and the other an excavator operator, are both African American and were each assigned only one percent of the liability in the civil trial. They were assigned prison sentences between seven and a half and 30 years in the criminal Center city building collapse convictions.
The NAACP’s request to reevaluate the two Center City building collapse convictions highlights how complex building collapse lawsuits can be. When many people are involved in building, demolishing, maintaining, and running buildings, it can be difficult to sort out who is legally responsible when a building collapses.
NAACP: Race a Factor in Center City Building Collapse Convictions
The Philadelphia building collapse saw a 30-foot brick wall plummet from a partially demolished building onto a Salvation Army thrift store below, killing seven people and injuring another twelve. It was believed that the tragedy could easily have been prevented if those involved had followed protocol and heeded warnings.
Even though the civil trial placed the bulk of the liability for the fatal building collapse on developer Richard Basciano and the Salvation Army, criminal convictions were only handed out to Griffin Campbell, who was hired by the building architect to manage the demolition, and to Sean Benscop, who was hired by Campbell to assist as an excavator operator.
The Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP believes the decision was a sign of “selective prosecution” based on race and class. They cite the lack of charges against both the Caucasian building developer and architect overseeing the project as evidence of their allegations.
“If you have white and black all culpable in this and then the only ones sitting in jail are black, that seems to suit a lot of parties here, but it’s unsettling for the NAACP,” Rodney Muhammad, the local chapter president, said in a statement about the Center City building collapse convictions.
Campbell’s Lawyer Petitions for Reduced Sentence
With the support of the NAACP (which is raising money for Campbell’s case), Campbell’s lawyer, William D. Hobson, petitioned Williams’ office seeking a reduced sentence for the Center City contractor. Hobson wants Campbell’s sentence adjusted from the 15 to 30 years he’s currently serving, to house arrest and probation instead.
Hobson has been arguing that Campbell was unfairly targeted in the structural failure case since Campbell’s trial, where he highlighted the fact that the richer Caucasian businessmen involved in the building collapse were not charged, but that the two blue-collar African American workers were.
“He was a pawn in the system,” Hobson said when speaking about Campbell. “At most, he was not trained. He never should have been there. Prosecutors have a civic duty not to just seek convictions, but to seek justice.”
NAACP Hopes Philadelphia Structure Collapse Civil Trial Will Help Appeal
One factor that the NAACP and Hobson hope will help as they appeal Campbell’s case is the outcome of the civil trial, which deemed the two most liable parties to be the Salvation Army and millionaire Richard Basciano, who owned and was demolishing the building before he planned to redevelop it. Some believe the 91-year-old real-estate developer cut costs by hiring inexperienced contractors like Campbell, who bid only $112,000 for the job—about one-third of the rate given in the other bids.
Finding the Center City building collapse to have been painfully preventable, the civil trial jury awarded a $227-million settlement, which is thought to be the largest personal injury settlement in the state of Pennsylvania.
Though the details of the settlement have not been published, it’s rumored that the Salvation Army may pay $200 million and Basciano the remaining $27 million. The architect involved in the case, Plato A. Marinakos, Jr., managed to avoid both the financial penalty and criminal prosecution by seeking immunity from the prosecution in exchange for testifying before a grand jury. It was Marinakos who recommended Campbell for the building demolition.
The civil trial jury found Campbell and Benscop held the least liability for the building collapse.
Victim’s Parents Feel Sentence Is “Relatively Light”
While the NAACP supports Campbell with a move to obtain a reduced sentence for the Center City contractor, there are at least two people who feel Campbell got off easy.
Nancy Winkler and Jay Bryan, the parents of 24-year-old Anne Bryan, who was killed in the Center City building collapse, wrote an opinion letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer, and in it, they express disapproval for the idea of Campbell’s sentence being reduced.
“Campbell was prosecuted for his decisions and conduct, not the decisions and conduct of others. He was found responsible, convicted of six counts of involuntary manslaughter and other charges. He was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison and is eligible for parole after 15 years. That’s about two years for every person killed. We feel that Campbell was given a relatively light sentence given the scope of human loss and suffering caused by the tragedy.”
Winkler and Bryan describe their daughter, who was shopping with a friend at the Salvation Army when the structure failure occurred, as being “buried alive.” In addition to feeling that Campbell’s sentence was appropriate for the harm caused, they shared their disappointment that the other individuals involved were not criminally charged.
Bryan’s parents helped bring the civil suit against the defendants, and say they did so to hold everyone—not just Campbell and Benscop—accountable for their actions. In their letter, they stated their distress at the idea that the civil trial outcome could be used to soften the Center City building collapse convictions.
District Attorney’s Office Declines to Comment
District Attorney Williams’ office has declined to comment on the petition from Hobson and the NAACP. Williams, who is also African American, is not seeking re-election in light of the controversy over not properly reporting $175,000 in gifts. Williams was fined $62,000 by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics over the matter.
It also remains to be seen whether Williams even has the authority to grant the petition, as it may need to be approved by a judge later in the appeals process.