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Court TV

American to stand trial in November for deadly Monaco fire

By John Springer
Court TV

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(Court TV) -- Nearly three years after the Monaco penthouse fire that killed one of the world's richest men and his nurse, American Ted Maher is scheduled to stand trial for their deaths.

Maher's lead lawyer in Monaco, Donald Manasse, told Thursday that testimony is tentatively scheduled to begin November 21 in a trial that has captured international media attention. Jury selection will occur October 16.

Maher faces up to life in prison if a jury of three judges and three citizens of the French principality conclude that banker Edmond Safra and nurse Vivian Torrente died as a result of the 43-year-old New Yorker's actions on December 3, 1999.

The judges have been appointed already. The citizen jurors, who will not be questioned extensively as is done in U.S. courts, should be selected relatively quickly on October 16.

"He's really looking forward to having his day in court finally. He's holding steady and wants to concentrate on the proceedings," Manasse said during a telephone interview.

Monaco chief prosecutor Daniel Serdet does not speak English, according to his office, and could not be reached for comment. But according to court papers provided by the defense, Maher is accused of causing the deaths by setting a fire in such a way that it spread quickly to the walls and ceilings of Safra's fortified penthouse apartment in the heart of Monte Carlo.

Maher, a nurse of the ailing Safra, stumbled bleeding into the lobby of the building in the wee hours of the morning to report that he had confronted two intruders and that a fire alarm was sounding. Believing that there were armed intruders, police prevented firefighters from launching a rescue effort for an hour after Maher was taken to a hospital for treatment of stab wounds.

By the time Safra and Torrente were found in a dressing room off of Safra's bedroom, it was too late. Both succumbed to toxic fumes fueled by a fire that began in a nurse's station.

Maher initially told police that he was stabbed in the leg and abdomen by hooded intruders he confronted in the residence, but the story quickly unraveled. Although his family maintains that he was coerced, Maher soon confessed that there were no intruders, that he stabbed himself and that he set a fire in the nurse's station all in a wayward plot to make himself look like a hero in Safra's eyes.

The central issue of the trial is whether Maher committed arson that resulted in deaths. His defense lawyers tried unsuccessfully to get the charges reduced and plan to argue during the trial that he never intended to harm anyone and should not be facing life in prison.

"It is all going to come down to intent. I think that is one of the focuses and I think there was some sort of interrupting event that would significantly lessen his responsibility for both the severity of the fire and the consequences of it," Manasse said.

Michael Griffith, a New York lawyer assisting the defense team, said he has assembled a roster of experts to testify that Safra and Torrente did not have to die.

"He gave three different warnings which should have negated this fire," Griffith said. "There was no intent to hurt Mr. Safra and if not but for the malfeasance, nonfeasance or negligence of the fire and police services, Safra and Torrente would be alive today."

In court papers, however, prosecutors argued that Maher is responsible for the deaths and should have foreseen the potential for the fire to spread. The fire began in a wastepaper basket that the defense claims was placed directly under a fire alarm by Maher as part of his plan to summon authorities and show Safra he was a competent, loyal member of his personal staff.

Monaco's criminal justice system differs from the U.S. system in many respects. The president of the court will preside over the trial and will likely deliver one opening statement to set up the issues for the jury. The president also asks questions of witnesses, filtering questions submitted to the bench by the prosecution and defense.

"You can't get that in-your-face cross examination that we defense lawyers enjoy in the states," said Griffith, who visited Maher last week in Monaco's House of Arrest.

Maher is expected to testify in his own defense.

Monaco, a French principality that is smaller than most U.S. towns, is located on the Mediterranean near southern France's border with northern Italy.

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