The trial against two men charged in the deaths of 36 people in Oakland’s 2016 Ghost Ship fire is headed for its scheduled start date next month, after defense attorneys on Thursday rebuffed a plea offer and a judge denied an attempt to delay the trial.
In a brief interview with reporters Thursday afternoon, defense attorneys for co-defendants Max Harris and Derick Almena said they couldn’t agree on a settlement offer from prosecutors, a possibility they discussed in the judge’s chambers. Both agreed that a trial seemed inevitable.
Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Harris, said the only plea deal he’ll take is one that allows his client to walk out of jail — “Time served. Let him out right now.”
“Anything short of that… is to me, unacceptable,” he said. “And the offer certainly was short of that.”
Briggs had asked for more time to allow his forensic experts to prepare for the case. But a judge on Thursday ultimately sided with prosecutors — as well as Almena’s attorney—who argued that the July 16 trial should remain on schedule.
Tony Serra, Almena’s attorney, said there are “psychological consequences” for prolonging his client’s pretrial detention.
Serra, who described Almena as an artist and a “free spirit” said his client had been depressed in jail and gained 40 pounds.
“When you put that kind of bird in a cage, they wither,” he told Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris D. Jacobson.
Prosecutor David Lim argued that a few of the victims’ families had objected to the delay. Some had started taking time off work or making plans to travel to the trial from different parts of the country.
Briggs said his client was eager to get to trial as well, but proving his innocence was the chief concern.
“We have a team of experts who are convinced that the city of Oakland completely mishandled this investigation, that we can never ever prove beyond a reasonable doubt what caused the fire,” he said.
This argument, Briggs said, will be crucial to his defense.
When denying the motion, Jacobson reasoned that the months spent on trial’s jury selection and prosecution case would provide time for Briggs’ experts.
The Dec. 2, 2016, fire broke out during a music event in the warehouse on 31st Avenue in the Fruitvale section of Oakland, killing 36 people who were trapped inside. The building had illegally been converted into an artists’ collective, where tenants were both working and living.
Almena, 48, master tenant of the Ghost Ship warehouse, and Harris, 28, the art space’s creative director, are both charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. They each face up to 39 years in prison if convicted.
The charges are the result of a six-month investigation that began the night of the fire. Most of the victims were trapped on the second floor as flames and smoke engulfed the building.
Investigators have not determined a cause for the fire but said the warehouse was full of highly flammable materials, including tapestries on the walls and a makeshift stairway made of wooden pallets. A tangle of electrical wires that snaked through the building was fed from a power source in a neighboring auto-repair shop.
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