Crime and Punishment

You have to be awfully hard-hearted to watch testimony from the family members of victims of a 2003 deadly nightclub fire in Rhode Island and not feel deeply moved. A local Boston TV channel has posted video here and a slideshow here.

The family members were testifying at the sentencing hearing for Daniel Biechele, who was the manager of the rock group Great White and who set off a pyrotechnics show that started the fire. One hundred people died in the blaze. A judge is expected to decide on Biechele’s sentence on Wednesday.

Imagine how wrenching the discussion must be among family members, many or most of whom want Biechele to get the maximum sentence — 10 years in prison — but some of whom are reportedly supporting his request that he be sentenced to community service in a hospital burn unit and work as a safety advocate.

Biechele was charged with a crime, and pled guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. (Owners of the nightclub still face criminal charges, based on allegedly maintaining the club unsafely.)

By way of contrast, consider the way corporate wrongdoers are treated.

In what Dr. David Graham, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) drug safety official and whistleblower, calls “maybe the single greatest drug-safety catastrophe in the history of this country,” Merck permitted the anti-arthritis drug Vioxx to stay on the market despite evidence of its cardiovascular risks. Graham estimates that people who took the drug suffered between 88,000 to 139,000 excess heart attacks or strokes as result. As many as 40 percent of these people — as many as 55,000 — died, Graham estimates. This, said Graham, was “a catastrophe that I strongly believe could have, should have been largely or completely avoided.”

Merck is facing serious financial trouble as a result — but there are no criminal charges pending against the company or its executives. There is no debate going on about the most appropriate sentence to impose on the executives who made the decision to leave the drug on the market despite evidence of its hazards. Those people are not forced to sit in a room and listen to the heart-breaking testimony of family members of the victims who died.

Although there is a very occasional exception, the Merck case is the norm.

For example, in a case with some parallels to the Rhode Island nightclub fire, in March 2005, 15 workers were incinerated, and more than 170 injured, following an explosion at BP’s sprawling refinery in Texas City, Texas.

In the aftermath, there was not even a criminal investigation.