OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A California judge on Monday dismissed three female jurors at the start of the third full week of deliberations over the fate of two men on trial over the deaths of 36 people in a fire at the Ghost Ship artist collective.
Judge Trina Thompson halted deliberations Monday morning after a juror sent a note to her. Thompson spent much of the morning in closed session with prosecutors, who were ordered not to speak to the press in the afternoon, and jurors appeared to be called in to speak with the judge one at a time.
Court resumed in closed session at about 1:30 p.m., with Thompson speaking briefly to the three jurors privately before excusing them shortly after 2 p.m.
Derick Almena and Max Harris are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Prosecutors say they illegally converted a commercial building into living quarters and party venue crammed with combustible materials with no sprinklers or smoke detectors.
As many as 120 people were at the “Ghost Ship” warehouse for an electronic music concert on Dec. 2, 2016, when a fire broke out, trapping the partygoers on the second floor. Thirty-six did not make it out.
Family members of the fire victims began arriving at the courthouse shortly after 1 p.m., having been told that there was no verdict but that something relevant to the case had happened.
In open court Monday afternoon, Thompson replaced the dismissed jurors with two male alternates and one female alternate.
“I must re-emphasize – do not talk about this case, including the people involved in this case to anyone,” she cautioned the newly empaneled jury.
The jury received the case on July 31, after three days of closing statements in the trial that began in April. They must now begin deliberations anew, Thompson said, admonishing them: ”Do not interact in any way with anyone with a news agency or anyone who tries to provide you with information from a news agency.”
Jurors have since sent Thompson at least six notes regarding issues like scheduling and work conflicts that must be hashed out tomorrow morning with attorneys for both sides, who are under a strict gag order until further notice.
Thompson said she issued the order before the afternoon break Monday because she was determined to forestall anything being said to the press that might jeopardize the deliberations and lead to either a mistrial or juror misconduct.
“I did not feel that, given the emotion and the surprise . . . that everyone understood that things that happened in private conference are not for public consumption,” she said. “I’m not confident that everyone understood the note and about what is in camera and what isn’t. Until we get this jury stabilized I’m prepared to stand by that order.
“I am more concerned about having a fair and balanced trial than a soundbite,” she said.
With that order still in place, the attorneys left the courthouse without speaking to the press.
David Gregory, who lost his daughter Michela in the fire, said as he left the courthouse, “I put my faith in the hands of the jurors.”