Before the trial was supposed to begin, it was announced that the two men on trial for the murder of three students during a massive dorm fire had accepted a plea deal yesterday. In exchange for prosecutors dropping the murder charges, Joseph T. LePore and Sean Michael Ryan pleaded guilty to arson and witness tampering (which have five year sentences) in the January 19, 2000 Seton Hall fire case. The fire at Boland Hall injured 58 people in addition to killing three. LePore read a statement, "I, along with Sean Ryan, lit a banner on fire that was draped across the couch in the third-floor lounge of Boland Hall. I did not intend to harm anyone. It was a prank that got out of hand."

The Essex County prosecutor Paula Dow said, "We can only be as good as our proofs. The alternative might have been their walking away with a not-guilty verdict and a smirk on their faces," given the difficulty of proving arson. LePore's and Ryan's lawyers blamed Seton Hall for not having proper sprinkler systems, which offended the prosecutors.

The victims' families reactions were mostly of relief. The mother of Frank S. Caltabilota, who died during the fire, said, "Hearing them say they set the fire, and the guilty plea, is mostly what I wanted to hear," even though the plea means that Ryan and LePore do not admit guilt for the deaths or injuries. But other victims were upset. From the Star-Ledger:

Shawn Simons, one of the five most severely burned victims of the fire, said the unhealed burns on his hands are a reminder of what happened that day. He was angry with LePore and Ryan for waiting so long to confess.

"We had to wait seven years for this?" said Simons. "This is a slap in the face. A real slap in the face."

Benjamin Murphy, a former Seton Hall student who suffered lung damage in the fire, said he also was angry with Ryan and LePore.

"Not once, in their whole plea agreement, or in their whole spiel afterwards, did the words 'I'm sorry' come out. Maybe the whole thing would be easier to swallow if the words 'I'm sorry' came out," Murphy said.

Since LePore and Ryan can get out in 16 months, the Daily News has an editorial saying "they got away with murder."

The January 19, 2000 fire changed prompted a state-wide review of fire safety equipment at colleges and universities in NJ. More from the Star-Ledger (did you know the prosecutors offered to pay mobsters to build a case against LePore and Ryan?) and Crime Library.

Photograph of Joseph LePore (right) and Sean Ryan (second from right) outside the Essex County Courthouse by Mike Dere/AP