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Murder conviction voided in 1996 firefighter death

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Clancy was searching for people trapped inside a burning South Jamaica building on New Year's Eve in 1995, when the floor collapsed beneath him.

Edwin Smith, 40, originally of St. Albans, pleaded guilty last Thursday to manslaughter, arson, and trespassing charges related to the Dec. 31, 1995 incident.

After Smith entered his plea, Assistant District Attorney Jack Warsawsky asked State Supreme Court Justice Robert Hanophy to drop the murder conviction against the defendant.

Hanophy accepted Smith's plea and sentenced him to 7 1/2 to 15 years in prison. He is eligible for parole in 2 1/2 years.

In October, Hanophy, who sentenced Smith in 1996, granted him a new trial because Smith's attorney at that time, Michael Mays, gave ineffective council.

In 1996, a jury convicted Smith of murder in the second degree for lighting the fire and he drew a prison term of 17 years to life. Many firefighters praised the tough sentence, but advocates for the homeless called it a travesty.

In 1999 the state Appellate Court upheld Smith's conviction.

Before the murder charge, Smith had been convicted of possession of 67 vials of cocaine, a felony charge.

In court last week, the tall, lean Smith, who was wearing glasses and baggy jeans, calmly described the tragic events of Dec. 31, 1995, acknowledging his role in Clancy's death.

"I was living in an abandoned residential building without the permission of the owner, when I lit a candle, fell asleep and recklessly caused a fire that, in turn, caused the death of Lt. Clancy," said Smith, his voice barely audible in the Kew Gardens courtroom.

According to court records, Smith and his girlfriend had sought shelter inside the building when a blanket caught fire from the candle and the two fled the scene before firefighters arrived.

Warsawsky said it was important to Clancy's family, fellow firefighters and friends that Smith acknowledged his responsibility for the fire.

Clancy's wife, Dawn, was three months pregnant with her first child when her husband was killed. Her son, John Jr., is now 4.

Hanophy said he reopened the case because Smith's first lawyer provided "ineffective assistance of council."

Mays, Smith's first lawyer, failed to explain all of the plea bargain options offered by the Queens district attorney's office, Hanophy told a hearing in October.

Smith's new attorney, Ronald Kuby, praised Hanophy for his "admirable and courageous" intervention in the case.

"Edwin is terribly sorry about what happened that night, but he never intended to hurt anybody," Kuby said after the hearing.

"He was branded a murderer and convicted for murder because of who he is," Kuby said.

The Queens DA issued a written statement immediately following the hearing.

"This is a fair disposition of a difficult case," the statement said, "Lt. Clancy died a hero. He lost his life as a result of the defendant's behavior - a fact which the defendant has now finally admitted."

Clancy's brother, Edwin, also a firefighter, attended the hearing but chose not to comment to the press.

Peter Gorman, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Associatio, said Clancy's relatives were happy to have some closure now that the defendant has waived his right to further appeals.

Clancy's widow did not attend the hearing, because "no matter what happens in court, her life won't change," Gorman said. "John is still going to grow up without a father," Gorman said.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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