Judge Loosens Gag Order as Ghost Ship Deliberations Continue

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – The judge overseeing the criminal trial of Derick Almena and Max Harris, two men each facing 39 years in prison for the deadly 2016 fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse artist collective in Oakland, California, modified a gag order prohibiting defense attorneys from speaking to the press but kept in place a ban on disclosing anything about the dismissal of three jurors Monday for misconduct.

Ghost Ship defendant Max Harris’ attorneys, from left: Tyler Smith, Curtis Briggs, James Mulgannon. (Maria Dinzeo / CNS)

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson said anything said in closed session Monday is off limits, barring the attorneys from even disclosing what topics were discussed.

“Anything said in closed session cannot be disclosed publicly,” she said. “Do not flirt with that issue.”

She had previously prohibited them from talking to the press at all beginning Monday, when she had to replace three jurors with alternates.

In a courthouse press conference, Harris’ attorney Curtis Briggs said he respects the confines of the modified order.

“The temporary gag order I thought was overboard but it’s been addressed,” Briggs said. “The judge issued that on an emergency basis because she wanted the jury stabilized, and we respect that, but it’s now just confined to what happened in closed session and we don’t believe that any of that should be public.”

Two jurors allegedly committed the as-yet unknown misconduct Aug. 15, and Thompson indicated Tuesday they could be held in contempt of court for violating a court order. The third juror who was dismissed Monday supposedly knew about the misconduct and did not immediately report it, and was ordered by Thompson to submit documentation of any communication received in the last five days.

Closed-door discussions with Thompson, prosecutors and the defense teams occupied much of Monday, and the newly empaneled jury began deliberations afresh that afternoon. The original jury got the case on July 31, and had deliberated for 10 days.

Ghost Ship warehouse after the fire. (Jim Heaphy)

Almena and Harris were each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter after 36 people were killed in a Dec. 2, 2016, blaze that broke out during an electronic music concert. Almena and Harris are accused of illegally converting a commercial building into living quarters and party venue crammed with combustible materials with no sprinklers or smoke detectors.

With the 12-person jury down to just one alternate, Briggs said he would not comment on whether the case is in danger of a mistrial.

“There’s a lot going on there in terms of the number of jurors. I think everyone knows the consequences of losing more jurors, and I don’t want to comment,” he said.

He added he thinks the reconfigured jury will reach a verdict, saying, “I’m absolutely confident with the jury as it stands.”

The jury upheaval comes as the court is set to begin a summer recess Thursday. After deliberations Wednesday, jurors won’t be back in court until Sept. 3

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