OAKLAND (CN) – A California jury couldn’t agree on whether Derick Almena, founder of the Ghost Ship warehouse artist collective, should be found criminally negligent for a fire that caused the deaths of 36 people on Dec. 2, 2016 – but cleared his right-hand man of the same charges Thursday.
A hung jury means a mistrial for Almena, who was charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for illegally converting a commercial building into living quarters and party venue crammed with combustible materials with no sprinklers or smoke detectors.
The jury found Ghost Ship tenant and Almena’s right-hand man Max Harris not guilty of the same charges, though prosecutors said he was culpable for hosting an electronic music concert attended by as many as 120 people the night of the fire.
Deliberations began anew on Aug. 19, after three jurors were dismissed for misconduct. In all, the current jury deliberated roughly six days.
The jury foreperson told Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson that the jury was deadlocked, with 10 jurors voting guilty and two in favor of acquittal. Thompson accepted the deadlock and declined to order further deliberations after the foreperson said nothing would help. Prosecutors must now decide whether to retry Almena, whose next court date has been set for Oct. 4.
Almena’s attorney Tony Serra, usually very loquacious, said he didn’t want to talk after the verdict reading and was looking to make a quiet exit. But he could not escape the media throng outside the courthouse.
“I understood the prospect that it would hang, but not by 2. I’m pained, I’m anguished, I’m frustrated, but we will win next time,” he said. “We look forward to the next trial and in the next trial we’ll do better. We won’t be joined at the hip by a co-defendant who was obviously innocent and the jury made contrasts between the evidence against Harris and the evidence against my client.”
He said he fears the next trial won’t be until March, as he has four or five other trials pending.
Serra added he has compassion for the family members of the victims. “I understand their suffering. Losing a child in that fashion is something that’s so traumatic.”
Speaking on behalf of Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, Chief Assistant District Attorney Kevin Dunleavy said, “Since the beginning of his case our hearts have been with the families of the 36 victims that died in this unspeakable tragedy. That remains our focus and will be our focus going forward.”
Dunleavy said they jury’s discussions with attorneys from the DA’s office will be taken into account in deciding whether to retry Almena.
“This was very difficult for the family members to accept,” he said.
The jury’s split decision comes after a three-month trial in which prosecutors presented testimony and evidence showing Almena signed a lease for the warehouse owned by Eva and Kai Ng in November 2013, then began moving people into the warehouse within days.
By 2016, the warehouse was home to as many as 25 people, though it was never intended as a living space. Almena also told tenants to tell the police and the Ngs that no one was living at the Ghost Ship, and that it was a “24-hour art space,” according to the prosecution.
Concertgoers were trapped on the second floor as smoke from emanated from the floorboards. All 36 victims died of smoke inhalation as they were unable to make it down one makeshift staircase that served as the upper floor’s only exit.
Serra had argued it was obvious people were living there, pinning the blame on city officials and police for willfully turning a blind eye to multiple fire code violations.
“It was obvious people were living there. They have a responsibility to the public to do their duty and that duty was to report it, red-tag it, seek an eviction, seek the appropriate remedy,” Serra told the jury.
The cause of the fire that started on the first floor has been deemed inconclusive, though investigators suspect it was electrical.
Harris’ attorney Curtis Briggs held a moment of silence for the victims before speaking to reporters.
“We want to call on the city of Oakland and Alameda County to use this as an opportunity to clean house and be held accountable.”
He also called for the Ghost Ship’s landlords to be prosecuted. Until they put the building owners in the defendant chair next to Almena “they’ll keep getting mistrials,” he said.