Monday, March 1, 2010

Seized gas sensor may determine criminal charges in Connecticut blast

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. - Criminal investigators probing the deadly Kleen Energy blast obtained a search warrant on Feb. 24 to remove a memory chip from a hand-held gas detector or “sniffer” to see if it has data on natural-gas levels at the power plant before the explosion.
To get the search warrant, police detectives had to convince a judge that there was sufficient evidence to believe that a crime occurred. The warrant application is the clearest indication so far that police are pursuing a criminal case. Prosecutors would ultimately decide whether to proceed with any charges. The Feb 7 explosion at the Middletown plant killed six and injured 26 workers.
Police and fire officials had been probing the blast site under an administrative warrant - a tool that fire marshals use to preserve a blast or fire scene, gain access to the site and seize evidence that is in plain view.
Police had already seized a security camera and the hand-held gas detector. Two of the workers who were killed, Chris Walters and Kenneth Haskell, were using hand-held devices to track gas levels right before the explosion.
The search warrant was needed to remove and examine the microchip and any video in the camera, said sources familiar with investigation.
Investigators have to identify what items they expect to seize and have two weeks to execute the search warrant and return it to the court, listing the items they seized.
The warrant will also enable police to seize about 75 other items of evidence from the site, sources said.
A former prosecutor and criminal defense lawyers said that blast investigators are likely to focus on two potential charges if they reach the conclusion that the deaths resulted from criminal conduct.
Prosecutors could pursue a manslaughter charge if they determine that negligence on the part of one or more individuals or a subcontracting company was responsible for the deaths.
Under state law, people or companies can be convicted of first-degree manslaughter - a felony - when they act in a fashion that shows "extreme indifference to human life" and engage in reckless conduct that causes a death.
Misdemeanor charges of criminally negligent homicide could be filed under less egregious circumstances if there is reason to believe that someone caused a death through criminal negligence, the lawyers said.

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