OAKLAND — Friends and families of the 36 people who died in one of California’s deadliest structure fires will get to confront the two men held responsible for the tragedy during a hearing Thursday and Friday that will close a chapter in the Ghost Ship warehouse criminal case.
In addition to sharing poignant testimony about their loved ones’ lives and their feelings of loss, some family members may lash out at what they consider light sentences negotiated behind closed courtroom doors. The two defendants also are expected to address the judge and the victims’ assembled families.
Derick Almena, 48, and Max Harris, 28, pleaded no contest in a plea deal last month to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of 36 people who had gathered for a party the night of Dec. 2, 2016 and perished in the inferno that engulfed a warehouse in East Oakland that since was determined to be a fire trap.
To give each victim’s family enough time to speak, two days were dedicated to the sentencing hearing.
Judge James Cramer, who will oversee the hearing, is expected to accept the nine-year term for Almena and six-year term for Harris agreed to in the plea deal.
Both Almena and Harris will continue to serve their time in county jail, where they have been in custody for more than a year. Almena could get out in 3½ years and Harris in 23 months with credit for time served and good behavior, their attorneys said. They both could have faced time behind bars for the rest of their lives if convicted by a jury and sentenced to the maximum penalty.
The plea deals have angered some of the victims’ families. Several have said they had hoped for a full trial and that the negotiated terms were “not enough.” The plea deal was reached less than two weeks before the trial was set to begin on July 16.
Sami Kopelman, the mother of 34-year-old victim Edmond Lapine, is among the parents upset with the plea deal. Although she will not attend in person, Lapine said she will have her victim impact statement read out loud by her attorney. She told this news organization last month she would have liked to see the defendants serve 36 years — one year for each victim.
“I don’t want my son’s life or those of the other victims … to be lessened by a sweep aside,” Kopelman said.
Mary Alexander, who represents several of the victims’ families in a civil lawsuit, said many of her clients were upset with the amount of time the two defendants will serve.
“If you do the math, it’s like three months for each death,” Alexander said.
David Gregory, father of Michela Gregory, echoed a similar sentiment at last month’s plea hearing.
“No, it’s not enough,” he said. “We just wanted some fair justice.”
Harris’ attorney, Tyler Smith, said his client lost friends in the deadly blaze and is expected to speak to the families of victims to express his “grief and compassion.” Except for a brief jailhouse interview with this news organization the week after being booked at Santa Rita Jail, it will be the first time Harris has spoken publicly since his arrest on June 5, 2017.
“I don’t think he wants a ‘woe is me’ moment, even though he’s been hurt and tormented by it,” Smith said.
Harris’ mother, who is flying in from the East Coast, his aunt, who is traveling from Washington state, and longtime friend and Oakland resident Elissa Roy also plan to speak.
As for Almena, “he’s going to say what he’s said from the beginning,” his attorney Tony Serra said Wednesday.
Almena and his defense team, in court and in multiple jail interviews with KTVU, have maintained he alone did not create a fire danger at the artists collective, saying police officers, firefighters and social workers were well aware of the conditions there.
“No one ever said this is a fire trap. In a certain sense, he’s protesting once again that he didn’t participate in the creation of what everyone believes to be a fire hazard,” Serra said.
The attorney met with Almena on Tuesday and went over his statement. As of Wednesday, the only other person certain to speak on Almena’s behalf is his wife, Micah Allison. Serra said he’s concerned about the level of security where Almena serves his sentence.
“We want minimum security so at least he can do programs and visit with his wife,” Serra said.
While the two-day sentencing hearings end the criminal case, a civil lawsuit filed by nearly all families of the 36 people killed continues to proceed. Almena is a defendant in that case, as are the city of Oakland, landlord Chor Ng and PG&E on trial.
In court papers, attorneys for the victims’ families have laid out what Oakland police and firefighters knew about the building and how often they visited, arguing officials turned a blind eye to the dangers. Oakland officials are expected to be deposed in a lawsuit that could end up costing the city millions.
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