OAKLAND (CBS SF) — Three jurors were dismissed Monday by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson for apparent misconduct during the Ghost Ship fire trial.
Three alternates — two men and one woman — were named to replace the three dismissed female jurors and will join the nine original jurors in deciding if master tenant Derek Almena and creative director Max Harris are guilty of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deadly Dec. 2, 2016 Fruitvale district warehouse fire during an illegal music party.
The judge ordered the remaining jurors to disregard their previous deliberations and to get a fresh start in the process. There was no immediate explanation of the misconduct that forced the three female jurors removal.
Hours earlier, Thompson was sent a note by the jury. A short time later, she met individually with each juror and then held a closed session with defense attorneys, defendants and prosecutors.
Then at 1:30 p.m., victims family members were called to court to learn “important” information about the trial. They were told there was no verdict but there will be something of interest to them.
One family member told KPIX 5 — “I got the call and literally dropped everything.” About a dozen other victim family members hurried to the court and awaited word with growing anxiety.
Meanwhile, Alameda County sheriffs investigators were called into the courtroom about 30 minutes into the closed door hearing.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: Deadly Ghost Ship Fire
Thompson didn’t say why the three jurors were dismissed, but her instructions to the remaining jurors suggested that it may have been because of improper use of the Internet and their cellphones, or exposure to media coverage of the case.
Thompson told jurors, “Do not interact with a news agency or anyone who tries to provide information.”
The trial started on April 30 with 12 jurors and six alternates, but there’s now only one alternate left, as Thompson previously dismissed one juror on May 1, the second day of the trial, for undisclosed reasons and dismissed another juror on May 9 for what she described as “veracity issues.”
At the end of the day on Monday Thompson said there’s “a high probability” that the lone remaining alternate will have to be pressed into service because one of the jurors in the case has scheduling issues now that it appears that deliberations will continue for a lengthy period.
Thompson also said jurors submitted six questions, mostly about scheduling issues, after she ordered them to re-start their deliberations.
Thompson and the attorneys in the case will discuss how to respond to those questions at a closed hearing at 9 a.m. on Tuesday and said she will give her reply to jurors at a hearing in open court later in the morning.
Thompson ordered attorneys not to talk to the news media about her reasons for dismissing the three jurors, saying she doesn’t want anything to be said that might compromise the case or cause a mistrial.
She said, “I’m more concerned about having a fair trial than having a sound bite that could create an error (legally).”
Almena’s lawyer Tony Serra appeared to be upset about Thompson’s gag order, saying in court that he is “concerned about issues that have occurred today.”
Last week, jury of nine women and three men asked for a read-back of some of the testimony from three witnesses, Nico Bouchard, Ryan O’Keefe and Almena himself.
Alameda County prosecutors allege that Almena and Harris are criminally responsible for the fire because the people at the music party didn’t have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn’t have important safeguards such as fire sprinklers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs.
Prosecutors also allege that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the building’s lease, which only called for it to be used as a warehouse for an artists’ collective, by turning it into a living space for up to 25 people and hosting underground music parties there.
But defense attorneys allege that the fire was an act of arson that Almena and Harris couldn’t have prevented. Defense attorneys also allege that firefighters, police officers and other authorities who visited the building before the deadly fire never told the two men that they thought it was unsafe or told them to make changes to bring it up to code.
Thompson’s courtroom has been packed throughout the three-month trial, and court officials have accommodated people by making an overflow room available during key parts of the case, including closing arguments.