OAKLAND (CBS SF) – The attorney for the man charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire predicted Friday that the mood surrounding the upcoming trial will be “very conflicting, adversarial, a hostile environment.”
Warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and fellow tenant Max Harris made their first joint courtroom appearance Friday. Neither defendant entered a plea and both are being held in Alameda County jail on $1 million bail.
Almena was charged because he allegedly turned the warehouse into an illegal concert venue while Harris is charged because he allegedly planned the Dec. 2 party which erupted into deadly smoke and fire.
Attorneys for both men spoke to reporters outside the courtroom.
Harris’ attorney — Curtis Briggs – said prosecutors should be targeting warehouse owner Chor Ng instead of his client.
He characterized Ng, who he claims has fled to China, as a ‘slumload” and blamed him for conditions inside the warehouse which led to the deaths.
“It is perverse to charge Mr. Harris or try him for these crimes,” Briggs said. “Mr.Harris was one of the many people there who was lucky enough to get out and should be treated no differently than any other person who was struggling to pay the rent at that building.”
Briggs also distanced his client from the event, saying Harris did not organize the event or block any emergency exit and is therefore not responsible.
“Max Harris is innocent. Max Harris is wrongfully charged,” said Briggs. “He did not allocate the room. He was just another tenant.”
But some people say that’s a lie, claiming he and Almena worked closely in planning the illegal parties.
Meanwhile, Almena’s attorney – famed San Francisco lawyer Tony Serra – told reporters that his client was a scapegoat. He has said the real blame falls on the shoulders of the warehouse owner Ng, Oakland building inspectors for failing to do their jobs, firefighters for improperly battling the fire and utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric.
He said expected both Almena and Harris to testify during trial.
“When the trial finally comes it is going to be a very conflicting, adversarial, hostile environment in court,” he said.
Friday afternoon, family and friends stood up for Max Harris, vouching for his character at a rally.
“He’s a pillar of our community,” said friend Elissa Roy. “I can’t remember a meal he made at home where he didn’t offer them to me too.”
“There’s not a malicious or greedy bone is Max’s body,” said Laura Lind, Harris’ aunt.
Lind told KPIX 5 Harris ran toward the fire and tried to put out the flames.
“When they spread beyond control, he yelled for other people to use their cellphones as guiding light for safety,” said Lind. “He gave up trying to save others only when he was overwhelmed by the intense heat and smoke. Some would call that heroic.”
District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said last week that she filed charges against Almena and Harris because their actions were “reckless” and created a high risk of death for the people who attended the dance arty, for which Almena and Harris had failed to get permits from the city of Oakland.
O’Malley said the two men “knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape, filled it with human beings, and are now facing the consequences of their deadly actions.”
If they are convicted on all counts, Harris and Almena could 39 years in state prison.
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