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Family Court gets teen's fatal arson case

Jermia Simmons' emotional problems, which have caused her to be treated for depression and suicidal tendencies over the past year, prompted her lawyer to get her fatal arson case transferred to Erie County Family Court, court officials said Monday.

Simmons, 14, pleaded guilty before Senior Erie County Judge Michael L. D'Amico to a second-degree murder charge for the June 12, 2007, fire that took the life of her stepgrandfather, Vincent Fairfax, 43.

Homicide prosecutors Garrett Grieser and James F. Bargnesi told the judge that with the consent of the girl's family, District Attorney Frank J. Clark is recommending her case be handled in the domestic affairs court rather than a criminal court.

After the plea proceeding, the judge ordered prosecutors and Joseph J. Terranova, Simmons' attorney, to return to court Nov. 12 for a hearing on the transfer of the case.

Afterward, Terranova confirmed that he has been pressing for the case to be handled in Family Court, where Simmons can be ordered confined only until she is 21.

Since the fatal fire, Simmons, who is in custody at the East Ferry Street juvenile detention center, has been prosecuted as a juvenile offender.

As a juvenile offender, a second-degree murder plea in criminal court would carry a mandatory prison term of at least 7 1/2 years to life and a maximum term of 15 years to life.

Terranova said he felt obligated to spare the troubled girl from a possible life sentence.

Prosecution and defense psychiatrists who separately examined her could not concur on a professional diagnosis, Terranova said.

In entering her guilty plea, Simmons did not go into any details on the circumstances of the fatal arson.

Prosecutors Grieser and Bargnesi told D'Amico they will outline on Nov. 12 what they called the "extenuating factors" that justify the removal of the case from the criminal courts.

Simmons, who was 13 at the time of the fire, was charged with dousing the family home at 125 Sprenger Ave. with charcoal lighter fluid early on the morning of June 22, 2007, as 10 people slept inside.

Firefighters rescued two adults and two children, and five others escaped the flames on their own, but Fairfax died when he stayed in the house because he mistakenly thought a child was still inside.

After the fire, family members publicly said Simmons might have acted out of anger at her grandparents, who they said were becoming stricter with her. In court Monday, the two prosecutors spoke only of the defendant's age and what they called extenuating family factors as influencing the case.

e-mail: mgryta@buffnews.com

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