Defense in New Jersey Dorm Fire Case Claims Distorted Evidence

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Lawyers for two men accused of setting a deadly dorm fire at Seton Hall University claim Essex County prosecutors withheld information from a grand jury that could have vindicated their clients.

In legal papers filed last week in Superior Court, attorneys for Joseph T. LePore and Sean Ryan included statements from witnesses who identified a drunken student they said threatened to ``burn'' the Boland Hall dormitory on the night of the fire, The Star-Ledger of Newark reported in Monday's editions.

The motions also included police statements from two other witnesses who identified yet another boisterous student ranting in the third-floor lounge where the fire broke out on Jan. 19, 2000.

The blaze on the university's South Orange campus killed 19-year-old freshmen Frank Caltabilota of West Long Branch, John Giunta of Vineland and Aaron Karol of Green Brook, and injured more than 50 others.

After a lengthy investigation, LePore and Ryan were charged in June 2003 with felony murder, arson and aggravated assault. LePore's parents, his sister and a childhood friend also were indicted on various charges related to an alleged cover-up of the crime.

Hilary Brunell, the county's executive assistant prosecutor, dismissed the claims made in the defense motion, saying ``none of that information is new to this office, and all of it was thoroughly investigated.''

Brunell said detectives interviewed the students involved, as well as the witnesses, and ruled out the other students as suspects before presenting a case to a grand jury that led to the indictments.

However, defense lawyers Michael Bubb and Salvatore Alfano argue that prosecutors gave the grand jury distorted evidence.

``You have these unexplored areas in the case. You have no eyewitnesses or anything linking the two kids the prosecutor has accused of setting the fire,'' Bubb said. ``Yet the prosecutor is now before a judge claiming this is a simple case and that they have clear evidence our clients committed this crime.''

Meanwhile, Superior Court Judge Harold Fullilove was scheduled Monday to review a prosecution request to merge the arson and felony murder charges with separate charges that Ryan and LePore - who have adamantly denied setting the fire - engaged in a cover-up and that LePore tried to elude arrest after being indicted.

If approved, all the charges would then be considered at one trial. However, the defense wants the judge to at least delay the request until he hears future motions to dismiss the entire arson and murder case.