OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A jury of three men and nine women began deliberating Wednesday the fate of two men on trial in the deaths of 36 people in a fire at the Ghost Ship artist collective.
In his final address to the jury, Alameda County prosecutor Autrey James said attorneys for Derick Almena and Max Harris spent a lot of time pointing fingers at the city of Oakland for looking the other way, but the pair alone are responsible for cramming the space with tenants combustibles, and throwing the fateful party the night of Dec. 2, 2016.
That night, a fire ripped through the building during an electronic music dance party. Of the 36 people who died, 35 were trapped on the second floor – unable to make it down a narrow, makeshift staircase engulfed in flames.
Almena and Harris each face up to 39 years in prison if convicted on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for converting the Oakland warehouse into illegal living quarters and an event space while failing to install fire safety measures, including sprinklers, smoke detectors and fire exits.
“We’re not saying that Mr. Harris or Mr. Almena started the fire. But they caused the conditions that led 36 people to die of smoke inhalation because they couldn’t get off of the second floor,” Autrey said.
Almena leased the building, originally meant to be a storage space, from Eva and Kai Ng in 2013. Autrey said that days later, Almena began moving people in. By 2016, the building housed 25 tenants, including Harris, who held himself out as the collective’s “creative director” and hosted events there.
In their closing statements Tuesday, Harris’ and Almena’s attorneys said their clients were victims of a conspiracy by the city to mask its own liability. Multiple firefighters, police officers, and social workers had visited over the years, they argued, and not one of them told Almena or Harris that the building was unsafe because it lacked sprinklers, fire alarms, illuminated exits or a proper set of stairs. The city faces a civil lawsuit brought by the families of the victims.
But Autrey said Almena and Harris repeatedly lied to city officials and the Ngs that no one was living there and that it was a “24-hour art space,” and told tenants to lie as well.
“I heard yesterday that this was all a conspiracy,” Autrey said. “Please. The only conspiracy that occurred in this case was between the occupants to tow the party line that this was an art space and nobody lived there.”
To convict the pair of criminal negligence, the jury must find they violated nine different fire codes, and in doing so, acted outside the scope of how a reasonable person would act in the same situation.
“Even creative people have to follow the law. We have rules so we can all survive,” Autrey said, adding he was disturbed by all the witnesses who said they believed the place was safe. He said the collective had weekly safety meetings and instituted a ban on open flames, candles and incense.
“If you thought it was safe, why would you have a safety meeting every week?” Autrey said.
His voice rising, he added: “If the place was safe, why aren’t those 36 people with us today? Because it was a death trap.”
Outside the courtroom, Carmen Brito, a survivor who lived in the Ghost Ship and testified during the trial, said she had been struck by Autrey’s closing remark. She said they never held weekly “safety meetings,” but had discussed a ban on items that could cause smoke and disturb other tenants.
“That just isn’t true,” she said. “He literally got up and lied. I understand he has to do his job but he shouldn’t be lying in order to do so. It’s undermined my faith in the justice system.”
Tyler Smith, who represents Harris, said he doubted that all the police, social workers and city officials who had been in the space weren’t trained to spot hazardous conditions, as Autrey had told the jury.
“CPS [Child Protective Services] saw that place as a reasonable place to live in. Why would Derick and Max even think otherwise?”