Ghost Ship Trial: Max Harris acquitted, jury hung on Derick Almena
OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU/AP) - Following 14 days of deliberations, an Alameda County jury acquitted Max Harris on all 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter Thursday in the Ghost Ship warehouse case. The jury declared a mistrial for his co-defendant Derick Almena.
The jury was hung on whether to convict or acquit Almena, 49. As the judge declared a mistrial, sobs and gasps erupted from family and friends of the victims who have packed the courtroom for the emotional three-month trial.
"I'm in shock," said David Gregory, whose 20-year-old daughter Michela perished in the fast-moving fire. "We were hoping for justice, but we didn't get justice today."
Harris and Almena, the master tenant of the warehouse, were facing involuntary manslaughter charges in connection to the 2016 warehouse fire that killed 36 people.
The men were accused of filling the building in Oakland with so much clutter that it trapped people at an electronic music party nearly three years ago.
It was the deadliest building fire in Oakland's history.
Michela Gregory and her 22-year-old boyfriend, Alex Vega, died when fire roared through the warehouse.
Vega's mother, Mary, was angry about Thursday's outcome but didn't regret the plea agreement getting tossed. She said she was glad that Harris served more than two years behind bars awaiting trial.
"It's something. Doesn't matter, it's not going to bring my son back," Mary Vega said.
According to Alameda County Sheriff's Department, Harris, 29, was released from Santa Rita Jail just before 6:30 p.m. Thursday evening. Deputies drove him from the jail rather than a front-door release.
Speaking outside of the courtroom after the verdict was read, Harris' attorney Tyler Smith said, “None of this would have ever happened in the first place if the income inequality injustice— with respect to the income inequality and the housing crisis— weren’t as bad, wasn't permitted to get as bad as it has gotten in the Bay Area and in Oakland.”
He warned the City of Oakland and Mayor Libby Schaaf that the reason that many artists live in warehouses is because they have so few options. He said he hopes the city and the mayor take real steps to address the housing crisis.
Mayor Schaaf's office released a statement following the verdict saying her office's thoughts were with the family and friends of the victims. "I am grateful for the professionalism and integrity displayed by all current and former city employees who participated in this trial," the mayor wrote. She did not address the criticisms of the city and her office.
Civil attorney, Mary Alexander, who is representing the families of the victims in the Ghost Ship Fire, echoed those sentiments. She said the Ghost Ship trial ultimately hurt her case because the city and PG&E weren't held accountable.
One of Almena's attorneys, Brian Getz, broke down in tears as he addressed reporters.
“It may hang again, it may be acquitted, but we’re not going to lose,” said Almena’s other attorney, Tony Serra, following the reading of the verdict. “Now we know what their witnesses have said. We now know our strengths and our weaknesses. We won’t be joined at the hip of a co-defendant who was obviously innocent.”
Serra acknowledged that further proceedings regarding Almena are set for Oct. 4 at 9 a.m. He expects a new trial date to be set at that time.
With other cases filling up his schedule, Serra said he fears the new trial won’t be until sometime in March 2020.
"I'm pained, I'm anguished, I'm frustrated, but goddammit we will win next time," an exasperated Serra said outside of the courtroom. He said his client will likely "sit in Santa Rita [Jail]" in the meantime and that the jail is a "hellhole."
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, who was out of town on the day the verdict was read, released a statement, which read in part, "From the moment we learned of this heartbreaking tragedy, the District Attorney's Office has worked tirelessly to bring the defendants to justice." She continued, "While I am disappointed in today's outcome, I must respect the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of each juror in this matter, as well as the outcome of their deliberations."
The D.A.s office could not comment further on the matter of Derick Almena since his case remains active. O'Malley's office will meet with the trail team and the families of the victims in the next few days to determine how to proceed.
MORE: GHOST SHIP TRIAL COURTROOM BLOG
The jury of seven women and five men had started their first full day of deliberations on Aug. 20, before going on an 12-day break that included the Labor Day weekend. Their talks came after three jurors were booted by Judge Trina Thompson for unauthorized communication and replaced by alternates.
Thursday's verdicts will cap a three-month trial during which survivors of the fire, Oakland police, firefighters and the defendants themselves took the stand.
The prosecution's case centered on criminal negligence. Authorities said Almena and Harris created the conditions that led to the deaths on Dec. 2, 2016. All the victims died from smoke inhalation. The majority had been trapped on the second floor where a music event was held.
The cause of the fire was never determined.
But prosecutors Autrey James and Casey Bates said that didn't matter, as Almena illegally converted the building into a living space and party spot even though the warehouse was supposed to be used only for storage.
The warehouse had never been properly inspected by building officials because the defendants - hoping not to get evicted - never secured the proper permits.
Instead, the DA said, they jammed the building from floor to ceiling with RVs, tapestries, pianos and other material that essentially acted like kindling. The warehouse wasn't equipped with sprinklers, smoke alarms or audible alarms.
The victims had "no time, no notice and no ability to escape," James told the jury in closing arguments
The men repeatedly maintained that no one lived at the building. This was the "party line" they stuck to as Oakland police and firefighters visited the building for various reasons in the years before the fire, James said.
But the defense cast the men as scapegoats. They said if government officials never reported any problems with the safety of the building, then Almena and Harris could not be expected to find fault themselves.
The defense floated the theory that the fire was caused by a band of disgruntled arsonists who were seen running from the building. One witness, Sharon Evans, testified she saw the men, wearing dark clothing, congratulating themselves after the fire.
But James said Evans' timeline didn't match and noted that she never reported what she saw to police.
The defense repeatedly asked why building owner Chor Ng and others weren't criminally charged in the case. Ng, the city of Oakland and the defendants have been named in civil lawsuits filed by families of the victims.
Associated Press reporters Janie Har and Olga Rodriguez contributed to this report.