OAKLAND (KPIX) — After weeks of deliberations and the replacement of three jurors for misconduct, creative director Max Harris was found not guilty Thursday and the jury was hung on manslaughter charges against Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena in Oakland’s deadly 2016 warehouse fire.
Max Harris left the Alameda County Jail in an unmarked car Thursday evening and was taken to another location where he met up with family members. It was his first taste of freedom in more than two years.
While he can’t be tried again on manslaughter charges, the legal battles are far from over.
Both Harris and Almena had been charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Of the jurors, 10 ruled that Almena was guilty of the charges while 2 felt he was not guilty.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson said the jurors were “hopelessly deadlocked” and declared a mistrial in regards to the Almena charges. She ordered prosecutors to return to court on Oct. 4 to say whether they would retry Almena or reach some kind of plea deal.
Legal analyst Tony Brass says the next step in the criminal case will have its challenges.
“With ten jurors voting for guilty, a guilty verdict is within reach. At the same time, not one but two jurors couldn’t come up with a decision and that may weaken their resolve to try it a second time,” Brass told KPIX.
Almena’s attorney Tony Serra promised to continue to push for his client’s innocence and demand a new trial at the Oct 4th hearing.
“I’m angry. I’m frustrated, but goddammit, we will win next time,” said Serra. “In the next trial we will do better. You know, it may hang again, it may be acquitted, but we’re not going to lose. Now we know what the witnesses have said, we know our strengths and weaknesses, we won’t be joined at the hip with a co-defendant who was obviously innocent, and the jury may contrast obviously between the evidence against Harris and the evidence against my client.”
He said if the prosecutors want to retry the case, he’s ready to fight it.
“I’ve got a hang, I’m going to hang it again,” said Serra.
Serra added that since he has four or five other trials to attend to, a new trial would not likely happen until March.
Officials said Harris would be released from jail Thursday evening, while Almena will remain in custody until the Oct. 4th hearing.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department tweeted shortly after 6 p.m. that Harris had been released.
Max Harris has been released from custody.
— Alameda County Sheriff (@ACSOSheriffs) September 6, 2019
As the verdicts were read, there were noticeable gasps and sobs from the relatives and friends of victims who had gathered in the Alameda Court Superior Courtroom. Harris, who could have faced 39 years in prison, hugged his attorney after the first not-guilty verdict was read.
“Frustrating, more than upset,” said Mary Vega, whose son Alex died in the fire, of the decision. “This wasn’t suppose to happen. I’m just upset, my son and his girlfriend died … I’m not happy about this.”
Vega’s older brother, Alberto Vega, said he “thought for sure” that Almena and Harris would be found guilty. He called the two jurors “incompetent” who did not find Almena guilty and said he believes there should be a retrial.
Outside the courtroom, Harris’ attorney Curtis Briggs called on the city of Oakland to ‘clean house’ after the jury’s decision.
“We want to call on the city of Oakland and Alameda County to use this as an opportunity to clean house,” Briggs told reporters. “To become accountable, to recognize the tremendous duty they have to the citizens of these communities to do their job, to do it well. To protect, to serve, to be accountable and to have the courage when something goes wrong to step forward. To say we made a mistake.”
Defense lawyers claimed during the trial that firefighters, police officers and other government officials who toured the building before the fire never told Almena and Harris that they thought it was unsafe or told them to make changes to bring it up to code.
They also told jurors that an arsonist started the fire and fled the scene.
Mary Alexander, whose is representing the victims families in civil suit scheduled to start in May, also laid the blame on Oakland, the warehouse owners and PG&E.
“The families are disappointed in the result today,” she said. “We look forward to proving the case against the city of Oakland. The city knew, the police knew, the firemen knew that this place had people living in it. That they were using it like a cabaret. There were events that were happening.”
Chief Assistant Alameda County DA Kevin Dunleavy said “the verdict was difficult for the families to accept.”
“We respect the decision of the jury and the fact they worked so hard over this length of time,” said Dunleavy. “Since the beginning of this case our hearts have been with the 36 victims who died in this unspeakable tragedy. That still remains our focus…We will evaluate it (hung jury on Almena charges) and go forward.”
- COMPLETE COVERAGE: Deadly Ghost Ship Fire
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf also weighed in on the verdict.
“Our thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims today. I am grateful for the professionalism and integrity displayed by all current and former city employees who participated in this trial,” the statement read. “We send warmth and comfort to everyone in our community who was impacted by this devastating tragedy.”
Jurors began deliberating on July 31 but, on Aug. 19 which was their tenth day of deliberations, Thompson dismissed three jurors for alleged misconduct, replaced them with three alternates and ordered the panel to start deliberating from scratch.
The revised jury of seven women and five men deliberated on Aug. 20 and 21 but then took a long break until it returned on Tuesday to resume its deliberations.
During the months of the trial, family and friends of the victims packed the courtroom and listened to emotionally draining testimony about the final, deadly moments of the three-alarm blaze.
Alameda County prosecutors alleged during the lengthy trial that began on April 30 that Almena and Harris were criminally liable for the fire that swept through an illegal music party inside the cluttered 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Oakland’s Fruitvale district on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.
They presented evidence that the victims were trapped on the second floor, unable to escape the deadly smoke and flames, because the warehouse didn’t have important safeguards such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and exit signs.
Jurors were also told that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse’s lease by turning it into a living space where up to 25 people stayed and by hosting underground music parties.