OAKLAND (CBS SF) — Alameda County prosecutors completed their case against Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris on Wednesday, while Almena’s attorney announced his client would take the stand for extensive testimony.
Outside of court, Almena’s lawyer Tony Serra said Almena will be “a major witness” for the defense and expects him to testify for two or three days.READ MORE: New COVID Variant 'Omicron' Identified; Here's What You Need To Know
Serra said Almena “will be surprisingly articulate and has an explanation for all of the issues” in the case.
One example, Serra said, is that Almena will tell jurors that the reason he told police officers that no one lived at the warehouse, even though people did so, is that the building’s owners, the Ng family, had instructed him not to let authorities know that people were living there.
As they closed their case, prosecutors presented more evidence that the pair didn’t keep the building in Oakland’s Fruitvale district safe.
Almena, 49, and Harris, 29, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one for each of the 36 people who died of smoke inhalation at a music party at the building in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.
Prosecutors, who began presenting their case on May 6, allege that Almena and Harris are criminally responsible for the fire because the people at the party didn’t have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn’t have important safeguards, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs.
But defense attorneys for Almena and Harris, who will begin presenting their case next week, allege that the fire was an act of arson that the two defendants couldn’t have prevented.
Alameda County District Attorney Inspector Cinda Stoddard said Wednesday that in investigating the case for two and a half years, she didn’t find evidence of fire sprinklers, fire alarms, smoke alarms or illuminated exit signs at the warehouse, where about 25 people lived even though it wasn’t an approved living space.
Harris’ lawyers have sought to downplay his role in running the building, but Stoddard said she recovered emails that Harris sent to the building’s owners in which he referred to himself as the warehouse’s executive director.READ MORE: 'The Long Good-Bye'; New Hope In The Battle Against Alzheimer’s Disease
In an interview after the prosecution rested, Serra said that in his opinion, “They ended not with a bang, but with a whimper” because the evidence prosecutors presented was repetitive.
“I saw jurors who were turned off,” Serra said. “I don’t see us (the defense) as being down because we neutralized the impact of all of their (the prosecution’s) issues.”
Serra also said he will present evidence that former Oakland Acting Assistant Fire Marshal Maria Sabatini went inside the warehouse while she was investigating an arson fire there in September 2014, even though she testified that she stayed outside the building.
Alleging that Sabatini committed perjury, Serra said if it can be established that Sabatini went inside the building and saw the conditions there, it will help prove the defense’s contention that fire and police officials knew about the safety issues at the warehouse but didn’t do anything to correct them.
Serra said that at a hearing on Thursday outside the presence of jurors, he will make a motion to dismiss the charges against Almena based on his belief that the prosecution failed to prove that Almena knew he was responsible for making fire safety upgrades at the warehouse.
However, Serra said he doesn’t expect Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson, who is presiding over the case, to grant his motion.
He said Harris’ lawyer Curtis Briggs also will make a motion to dismiss the charges against Harris.
In addition, Serra said there will be a hearing on Thursday on the defense’s request to present a witness who would testify about hearing two people come into a taco restaurant near the warehouse shortly after the fire and “were laughing about how they had started the fire.”MORE NEWS: Jack Dorsey Stepping Down As Twitter CEO
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