Ghost Ship fire at­tor­ney says ‘mob hys­te­ria’ swayed judge to toss plea deal

The Mercury News - - Local News - By An­gela Rug­giero arug­giero@ ba­yare­anews­ Con­tact An­gela Rug­giero at 510-293-2469.

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.

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