Ghost Ship criminal trial to begin in July on schedule

A judge denied a motion Thursday to delay the start of the criminal trial against the two men charged in the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire.

Attorneys for defendant Max Harris requested the case be postponed until September so they could further investigate the fire site and evidence, and prepare four expert witnesses. In an unusual move, lawyers representing co-defendant Derick Almena disagreed and argued for trial to begin July 16 as planned.

Defense attorney Tony Serra argued that Almena had already spent more than a year in prison away from his wife and three children and was becoming increasingly mentally unstable. Serra also implored the judge to deny the co-defense’s motion because a delay would conflict with other cases on his office’s calendar and likely drag the proceedings into 2019.

The prosecutor said the state planned to call about 50 witnesses and could take up to two months to present the entirety of its case. Both defense teams estimated that they would have about 25 witnesses of their own in total, and predicted that the trial could last up to six months.

Almena and Harris are both charged with 36 counts of manslaughter for the deaths of three dozen people at the Oakland warehouse in December 2016. However, their defense attorneys say the blame should fall on the city, fire department, and the building owners.

“We have a team of experts that are convinced the City of Oakland completely mishandled this investigation and can never ever beyond a reasonable doubt say what caused the fire and who’s guilty of it,” said Curtis Briggs, defense attorney representing Harris. Briggs said among their witnesses, his team plans to call Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf to testify because she’s previously made public statements that they believe will help his defense.

Attorneys from both parties spent about an hour in the judge’s chambers before the hearing discussing a possible deal to avoid a trial. But both defense teams tell KTVU that no agreement was even close to being reached and they expect the case to go before a jury.

“Because the DA wanted something that from our position is absurd – and we wanted something that the probably the DA thinks absurd -- we’re so far apart there’s no resolving this case. It’s going to trial,” said Serra. “And it will be an adversarial preceding. There will be lots of antagonism.”

“We think this case needs to go to trial. We think Max Harris needs to be found innocent. And we think Max Harris needs to be released from jail right now. And anything short of that as an offer from the DA is, to me, unacceptable.”

Defense attorneys, and those representing victims’ families in the civil case, have also argued the warehouse deaths were years in the making because of negligence and ignored hazards.

Leaked police body camera videos appear to show the failure of city employees to take action long before the tragedy. And in a previous report, 2 Investigates found firefighters were aware of issues and at least one attended a party at the Ghost Ship. Since they do not wear body camera, it’s unclear how many times firefighters may have been inside, however, public records show no inspections were done.