Judge rejects bid by Ghost Ship master tenant to reinstate plea deal

Judge Kevin Murphy of Alameda County Superior Court on Friday rejected a bid by Ghost Ship fire defendant Derick Almena to reinstate his plea deal.

Murphy said Judge James Cramer had discretion to nix the deal brokered by Judge Morris Jacobson.  The case will still go to trial, possibly in the spring.

In final arguments Friday on the issue over the plea deal, Almena's attorney Tony Serra said Cramer had essentially lie when he promised at least three times to uphold the plea deal. Serra said Cramer had said, " 'Yes, I will,' or words to that effect." 

But instead, while listening to relatives of the victims at the original sentencing hearing, Cramer stunned the courtroom when he interrupted a speaker who had suggested that the judge may not understand what the families were going through, unless he, too, had a lost child. That's when Cramer told the audience that he, in fact, had suffered a loss. Later that day, Cramer threw out the plea agreements for both men.

Serra, repeating a phrase he had written in court papers, said, "I nearly fell out of my chair" after Cramer's revelation. Serra said the fact that Cramer had lost a child made it a conflict of interest because the judge would naturally be sympathetic to the families. 

"We were cheated out of a plea agreement," Serra said.

But prosecutor David Lim fought back, saying Cramer had the "finest judicial temperament" and acted properly when he decided to throw out the plea deals. Lim said the "law is clear" and that a judge has the discretion to reject a deal. Judge Murphy agreed, saying a judge "has discretion up until the end."

Both defendants will return to court on Dec. 3, at which time they may learn which judge will be assigned to the trial.