OAKLAND (CBS SF) — The judge in the trial of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris is expected to decide on Thursday whether Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf should be ordered to testify.
Almena, 48, and Harris, 29, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on Dec. 2, 2016.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin next Tuesday and their trial tentatively is scheduled to start on April 30 with opening statements. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson, who is presiding over the case, has been holding a series of hearings on what testimony and evidence will be presented at the trial and will hold another such hearing at 9 a.m. on Thursday.
Harris’ lawyer Curtis Briggs wrote in a motion filed on Tuesday that Schaaf is “a material and crucial witness in this case” and that if she doesn’t testify Harris would be deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to present a defense.
Briggs said Schaaf “has relevant and critical information regarding the institutional shortcomings plaguing the (Oakland) Fire Department, the Building Department and the Police Department and these deficiencies were in existence at the time preceding and contemporaneous to the Ghost Ship catastrophe.”
Briggs said, “The failures of these agencies go to the heart of Mr. Harris’ third party culpability defense on which he primarily relies as a jury trial defense.” Briggs is referring to the defense’s contention that the people who are most responsible for the fire are the warehouse’s owners and government officials who knew about safety issues there and didn’t do anything to correct them.
Briggs wrote that Schaaf “has made overt public statements where she utilized her professional and personal knowledge and official position to persuade the public that Oakland police officers were not trained in how to identify building code violations.”
The defense lawyer said, “Mr. Harris will defend himself by showing that he had no heightened duty to comply with building or fire codes and there could only be less of an expectation of him to reasonably identify electrical, structural and fire-related safety risks than public officials who responded to various calls at the warehouse prior to the fire.”
Clifford Yin, attorney for the city of Oakland, wrote in a motion asking Judge Thompson to quash the defense’s subpoena for Schaaf that the mayor “is not a material witness in this case.”
Yin said Schaaf “had no knowledge of the warehouse or the defendants (Almena and Harris) before the fire.” Yin said, “Anything the mayor knows (about police training) is second hand.”
But Briggs said, “Any privileges formerly held by the mayor which could have prevented her from testifying have been properly waived” by public statements in which she said city officials weren’t responsible for the fire and Almena and Harris were to blame.
Briggs wrote, “The mayor has sought to influence the jury pool, protect the city from any criminal or civil liability it may confront and made herself a material witness that Mr. Harris should be able to confront under his constitutional and statutory rights.”
Briggs said Schaaf “oversaw a fire department that was critically understaffed to the extent that thousands of commercial properties didn’t receive the annual inspections city rules required.”
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