Ghost Ship fire attorney says ‘mob hysteria’ swayed judge to toss plea deal
OAKLAND >> The attorney for a co-defendant charged with involuntary manslaughter of 36 people who perished in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire urged the court Friday to reinstate the plea deal a judge threw out after succumbing to “mob hysteria.”
Attorney Tony Serra said his client, Derick Almena, shares some of the same “passion, frustration and anger that the unfortunate victims’ “families have
But Superior Court Judge Kevin Murphy denied the motion.
Under the plea deal that prosecutors and defense attorneys had reached but Judge James Cramer rejected in August, Almena would have been sentenced to nine years in prison and co-defendant Max Harris to six years by pleading no contest to manslaughter in connection with the Dec. 2, 2016, Ghost Ship fire. With time served and good behavior, Almena could have gotten out in 3 1/2 years and Harris in two.
The plea deal had been brokered by Judge Morris Jacobson, but he wasn’t available when it was time to sentence Almena and Harris so the case went before Cramer.
Serra argued Friday that Cramer initially indicated to attorneys on both sides that he would follow the plea deal.
But instead, Serra said, “mob hysteria” and “mob passion” swayed Cramer to backtrack and deny the plea deal following two days of emotional testimony from family members of the deceased victims that left many in the courtroom in tears.
Prosecutor David Lim, in his arguments before the judge, said it was “disrespectful” for Serra to refer to the families of the dead as a “mob.”
“These folks have suffered the most unimaginable loss,” Lim said, adding that in all his years as a prosecutor, the sentencing hearing was “easily the most emotionally draining.”
Serra later apologized, saying he meant no disrespect to the victims’ families.
Some family members and friends of the 36 victims were present during Friday’s court hearing.
Serra also said that had he known the judge was going to change his mind, he would not have allowed his client to go on the stand and say “I’m guilty.” Serra was referring to Almena’s statement during the August sentencing hearing, before the plea deal was rejected.
“I should have died that night,” Almena told the court then. “It would have been an honor to try and save your families’ souls. I’m guilty. I’m guilty for believing we were safe.”
Serra said outside the courtroom that he will make a motion to exclude those statements from the trial itself.
In denying Serra’s motion, Murphy said Friday that Cramer has the authority to make the decision he made.
Harris’ attorney, Curtis Briggs, said outside the courtroom Friday they would have opposed the plea if it was reinstated.
Briggs said Cramer’s rejection of the plea bargain was “the best thing that’s happened” to Harris because they want to go to trial. Since Cramer’s ruling, more facts have come to light, including the culpability of others, Briggs said.
“Now we get a public trial, now we can bring out these facts and bring about change. And I believe we can acquit Max Harris in the process,” Briggs said.
Briggs was referring to an unlicensed electrician, Ben Cannon. Briggs said the building’s owners, the Ng family, knew Cannon didn’t have a license and had been accused of fraud, but used him anyway.
“They were liable for that decision to use that electrician, who is also criminally liable,” he said.
Serra also indicated that his client told him he now wants to go to trial.
Although the case was supposed to be assigned a trial judge Friday, that move was continued to Dec. 3, a day after the two-year anniversary of the deadly fire.