Jury deliberations in Ghost Ship trial restart with alternates

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An Alameda County judge on Monday dismissed three jurors in the Ghost Ship trial and says deliberations must restart. 

Jurors were on day 10 of deliberations when Superior Court Judge Tina Thompson swapped three of them out for alternates. 

As a result, the panel, now made up of seven women and five men, must start from the beginning. 

Thompson says previous discussions can't be used during the new deliberations in the trial against Derick Almena and Max Harris, both of whom are facing 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. 

The judge alluded to inappropriate contact with the news media for the jury shake-up and issued a gag order preventing attorneys from speaking about the case until at least Tuesday. 

 A remaining alternate could be tapped due to juror schedule conflicts. 

Deliberations began on July 31 after a three-month trial during which survivors of the fire, Oakland police, firefighters and the defendants themselves took the stand.

The prosecution's case centered on criminal negligence. Authorities said Almena and Harris created the conditions that led to the deaths on Dec. 2, 2016. All the victims died of smoke inhalation. The majority had been trapped on the second floor where a music event was held. The cause of the fire was never determined.

But prosecutors Autrey James and Casey Bates said that didn't matter, as Almena illegally converted the building into a living space and party spot even though the warehouse was supposed to be used only for storage.

The warehouse had never been properly inspected by building officials because the defendants, hoping not to get evicted, never secured the proper permits. 

Instead, the district attorney said, they jammed the building from floor to ceiling with RVs, tapestries, pianos and other material that essentially acted like kindling. The warehouse wasn't equipped with sprinklers, smoke alarms or audible alarms.

The victims had "no time, no notice and no ability to escape," James told the jury in closing argument.

The men repeatedly maintained that no one lived at the building. This was the "party line" they stuck to as Oakland police and firefighters visited the building for various reasons in the years before the fire, James said.

But the defense cast the men as scapegoats. They said if government officials never reported any problems with the safety of the building, then Almena and Harris could not be expected to find fault themselves.

The defense floated the theory that the fire was caused by a band of disgruntled arsonists who were seen running from the building. One witness, Sharon Evans, testified she saw the men, wearing dark clothing, congratulating themselves after the fire.

But James said Evans' timeline didn't match and noted that she never reported what she saw to police.

The defense repeatedly asked why building owner Chor Ng and others weren't criminally charged in the case. Ng, the city of Oakland and the defendants have been named in civil lawsuits filed by families of the victims.