The Alameda County District Attorney told the judge presiding over the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire case that no more plea deal negotiations will be discussed or accepted by prosecutors.
Both side were supposed to meet on Friday, but the hearing was continued until Sept. 7.
District Attorney Nancy O’Malley wrote in a letter to Judge James Cramer, and obtained by 2 Investigates, in part, “The grief of the families, the pain and shock of the community by the senseless and tragic deaths of 36 individuals caused by a fire that roared through the warehouse is as strong and deep today as it was in December, 2016. These lives were lost at the hands of the two defendants. The evidence supports that assertion and the People intend to prove the charges at trial.”
Derick Almena, the master tenant of the Ghost Ship, and creative director Max Harris, are both charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Both men are scheduled to appear in court Friday to set a trial date after the judge threw out a deal negotiated by lawyers and prosecutors last week, in which both defendants had pleaded no contest.
Almena was expected to be sentenced to nine years in county jail, and Harris to six, according to the rejected plea bargain "package deal." With credit for time served and good behavior, Almena could have been released in about three years and Harris in less than two.
Part of the reason the judge overturned the deal was the victims’ families and friends who were all in disagreement with the deal and felt more information about what happened could come out during a trial. Last Thursday and Friday, victims’ families gave emotional, sometimes heated, impact statements. The defendants also expressed themselves in court.
O’Malley explained in the letter there was a “very firm and resounding opposition to the proposed sentences in this case.” She went on, “Given the impact that this case has had on the victims’ families as well as on our community, the People will not be entering into any settlement discussions with defense counsel prior to trial.”
Tony Serra, who represents Almena, told 2 Investigates that he wants to see a change of venue because media coverage and statements by the victims’ families has tainted the jury pool in the Bay Area.
“This case would be tried on emotion and that’s what I’ve always been afraid of,” Serra said. “I won’t get a fair trial. All the jurors are going to know everything from the media and two thirds of them have made up their minds already since my client’s been villainized over and over again.”
Serra also expressed his frustration with the judge overturning the plea agreement and plans to file a motion of ‘specific performance of plea agreement’ questioning presiding Judge Cramer’s authority to reject a deal signed off by Judge Morris Jacobson. Additionally, Serra criticized the push by the District Attorney to immediately send the case to trial, which conflicts with other cases on Serra’s calendar that were scheduled after the acceptance of the deal in the Ghost Ship case.
Almena came under scrutiny last Friday by both families and the judge for not appearing remorseful, empathetic or accepting responsibility for the fire and issues surrounding Ghost Ship.
In an exclusive interview with 2 Investigates in June, Almena said, “To sit through months of parents looking at burnt remains of their children, it’s not even worth it.”
During last week's hearing Almena admitted to asking Harris to run the Ghost Ship and help oversee things and if he hadn’t asked Harris to be there, he wouldn’t have been.
The attorneys for Harris tell 2 Investigates they were surprised by the judge’s rejection of the deal and they too plan to file a motion for a change of venue soon.
Despite the judge believing the joint plea agreement and sentence was fair for Harris, O’Malley wrote, the families are against that idea and want to see both men stand trial.
“The People stand in firm opposition to any contemplated sentence for defendant Max Harris,” she wrote. “The lives of 36 individuals whom the People allege and intend to prove, died at the hands of defendants Harris and Almena, require significant punishments.”
She went on and said, “The People stand ready to try this case against both defendants.”