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Accused Spring Street Arsonist's Lawyer Hints at Possible Insanity Defense

By Andrea Swalec | January 17, 2013 7:01pm

MANHATTAN CRIMINAL COURT — The mental health of the man accused of starting a fatal fire in his NoLita apartment building last week is still being evaluated, his lawyer said, leaving open the possibility of an insanity defense.

The defense attorney for alleged arsonist Wei Chu Hu, the 45-year-old who police said set his 41 Spring St. building ablaze on Jan. 10, is still establishing whether Hu has a background of mental illness, the attorney said after a court appearance Thursday afternoon.

"We need to work out his history," attorney Kenneth Walsh said after prosecutors announced that a grand jury had indicted Hu. "All records went up in the fire."

Information about whether Hu has undergone psychiatric evaluations since he was arrested was not immediately available.

Hu is accused of setting the massive Spring Street blaze that engulfed his apartment building, and then trying to prevent police and firefighters from entering to make rescues, police said. The fire killed one person, who was "burned beyond recognition," police said.

Hu was arrested the night of the fire, which also injured nine people, and charged Jan. 11 with murder, arson, attempted assault of a police officer and resisting arrest.

Wearing an oversized button-down shirt, khakis and the dark remnants of a black eye, Hu was blank-faced and silent in court on Thursday.

According to his lawyer, Hu, who was being held on Rikers Island without bail, worked in a Chinatown fish market and has lived in the United States for less than a year. Walsh described Hu as "mentally exhausted."

Hu — who was previously identified by police as Wei Chu Wu — has said little about his actions, according to Walsh.

"I'm expecting in the next 48 hours for him to open up a bit. That's my hope," Walsh said.

The city medical examiner said Wednesday that the person killed in the fire had still not been identified. A follow-up call Thursday afternoon was not immediately returned.

Hu is due back in court Feb. 5.