Ghost Ship trial begins with debate over semantics; Oakland's mayor among many subpoenaed

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The trial for two men charged in connection with the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire got underway Tuesday morning, where both prosecutors and defense attorneys argued which witnesses and evidence should or should not be presented to the jury, leading to some controversial subjects.

For the first time in court, former master-tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris exchanged their jail clothes for shirts, ties and suits. A 12-member jury will have to decide their fate after being charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the 36 lives lost in the warehouse fire in December 2016. %INLINE%

Judge Trina Thompson heard motions from both sides before jury selection begins later this month. A fire investigator, a former fire marshal and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf were among many who were subpoenaed. 

Mayor Schaaf’s lawyer appeared in court requesting she be excluded from testifying at the trial. Prosecutors also want to see her excluded claiming there’s nothing relevant in proving the defendants’ guilt or innocence by having Schaaf testify and the information could sway or mislead the jury. Judge Thompson will decide on the motion next Thursday, April 11.

Prosecutors also pushed to prevent the defense from using the words “scapegoat” or “cover-up” during trial. Defense attorneys contend that Almena and Harris have been made scapegoats to cover-up negligence by the building’s owners and the city.

“We’d all be kidding ourselves if the city and mayor wasn’t doing a tap dance about responsibility,” Harris’ attorney Curtis Briggs said in court. “If I can’t address the elephant in the room, I can’t defend Mr. Harris fairly.”

In the end, Judge Thompson agreed to allow the defense’s argument at trial but the two words will not be allowed to be used in the opening statements.

“The biggest concern is that the sideshow becomes the show,” Thompson said. “Focus on the four corners of this case.”

Present in the courtroom were friends of defendant Max Harris. They claim he is innocent and should not be standing trial. Some of them expressed sympathy for everyone affected by the Ghost Ship tragedy, including the victims’ families.

“It’s a terrible situation all the way around,” Alex Goldman, Harris’ former roommate said. “I think it’s wrong that Max is in jail. I think it’s wrong this tragedy happened. I think it’s terrible that all these families have to deal everyday with their loss.”

Judge Thompson expects emotions to run high. The high-profile case is expected to take several months. Thompson has aggressively planned opening statements with a seated jury for April 30 and May 1.

“I’m just ready. I’m ready to get this started,” Harris’ friend Danielle Silva said. “I’m ready to get this over with and I’m ready to see people heal. It’s day one of finally seeing this nightmare end.”