A jury on Thursday acquitted Ghost Ship warehouse creative director Max Harris on all counts but was deadlocked on a verdict for master tenant Derick Almena on involuntary manslaughter charges for a fire at the Oakland building in 2016 that killed 36 people.
Almena, 49, and Harris, 29, each faced 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the blaze during a music party at the warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue on the night of Dec. 2, 2016. The jury found Harris not guilty of all 36 counts, but Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson declared a mistrial for Almena after jurors said they were deadlocked 10-2 in favor of guilt.
Harris will be released, while Almena remains in custody and will return to court again on Oct. 4.
Harris’ defense attorney Curtis Briggs told reporters outside of the courtroom after the verdict that he always knew his client was innocent, and acknowledged the pain that the families and friends of the 36 victims have gone through.
“We know this is a difficult verdict for them,” he said.
Brian Getz, one of the attorneys representing Almena, was emotional after the verdict, telling reporters, “I’m not happy, but I’m relieved he wasn’t convicted.”
Tony Serra, another attorney for Almena, expressed confidence in the case if prosecutors seek a retrial.
“We’re not going to lose,” Serra said. “Now we know what their witnesses have said.”
Chief Assistant District Attorney Kevin Dunleavy spoke briefly to reporters after the verdict, saying prosecutors have not determined whether to seek a retrial.
“We are going to evaluate the facts and evidence that came out from the case,” including speaking with jurors during this first trial, Dunleavy said.
He also noted that the verdict was “extremely difficult for the families to accept.”
Prosecutors said during the trial that the people at the party didn’t have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn’t have important safeguards such as fire sprinklers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs.
Prosecutors also alleged that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the building’s lease, which only called for it to be used as a warehouse for an artists’ collective, by turning it into a living space for up to 25 people and hosting underground music parties there.
But defense attorneys alleged that the fire was an act of arson that Almena and Harris couldn’t have prevented. They also said firefighters, police officers and other authorities who visited the building before the deadly fire never told the two men that they thought it was unsafe or told them to make changes to bring it up to code.
Alberto Vega, 36, the older brother of one of the victims, 22-year-old Alex Vega, said he “thought for sure” that Almena and Harris would be found guilty. Vega called the two jurors “incompetent” who did not find Almena guilty and said he believes there should be a retrial.
Jeff Shuttleworth, Bay City News
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