Jury ac­quits 1, dead­locks on 2nd in Calif. ware­house fire

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD -

OAK­LAND, Calif. — A jury on Thurs­day ac­quit­ted one man of in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter but could not reach a ver­dict for the leader of an artists’ com­mune ac­cused of turn­ing a San Fran­cisco Bay Area ware­house into a clut­tered maze that trapped 36 par­ty­go­ers dur­ing a fast-mov­ing fire.

Jurors found Max Har­ris, 29, not guilty but said they could not unan­i­mously agree on whether to con­vict or ac­quit Der­ick Al­mena, 49, of in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter af­ter de­lib­er­at­ing since Aug. 26.

The de­ci­sions fol­low an emo­tional three-month trial in which fam­ily and friends of the vic­tims packed the court­room.

“Jurors are hope­lessly dead­locked. I must de­clare a mis­trial,” Alameda County Su­pe­rior Court Judge Trina Thomp­son said, sobs and gasps erupt­ing from the sec­tion where fam­i­lies of the vic­tims were seated.

Har­ris, who could have faced 39 years in prison, hugged his at­tor­ney af­ter the first not­guilty ver­dict was read.

The De­cem­ber 2016 fire broke out dur­ing an elec­tronic mu­sic party at a ware­house in Oak­land called the Ghost Ship. The build­ing was packed with fur­ni­ture, ex­ten­sion cords and other flammable ma­te­rial, but had only two ex­its and no smoke de­tec­tors, fire alarms or sprin­klers, pros­e­cu­tors say.

The blaze killed 36, many of them young peo­ple trapped on the build­ing’s il­le­gally con­structed se­cond floor. Pros­e­cu­tors said the vic­tims re­ceived no warning and had lit­tle chance to es­cape down a nar­row, ram­shackle stair­case.

Set­backs have rid­dled the crim­i­nal case against Al­mena and Har­ris.

The men were set to be sen­tenced last year to nine and six years in prison, re­spec­tively, af­ter plead­ing no con­test to man­slaugh­ter. But a judge threw out their pleas af­ter many of the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies ob­jected, say­ing the pro­posed sen­tences were too le­nient.

Last month, Thomp­son booted three jurors for mis­con­duct and or­dered the new jury to res­tart de­lib­er­a­tions and dis­re­gard all past dis­cus­sions. She re­minded them they can­not talk to oth­ers about the case or seek out­side in­for­ma­tion about it.

In clos­ing arguments, Alameda County Deputy District At­tor­ney Autrey James said the men didn’t ob­tain per­mits be­cause they didn’t want in­spec­tions and they vi­o­lated the fire code by re­fus­ing to in­stall safety de­vices.

Al­mena was the master ten­ant and Har­ris acted like a man­ager by col­lect­ing rent and set­tling house­hold dis­putes, the pros­e­cu­tor said.

James told jurors that to find the men guilty of in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter, they must agree that their ac­tions were crim­i­nally neg­li­gent. “Is fail­ure to get a per­mit crim­i­nally neg­li­gent? Ab­so­lutely,” he said.

The de­fen­dants ar­gued that city workers were to blame for not rais­ing con­cerns about fire haz­ards and said the fire was ar­son. In­ves­ti­ga­tors have never found what caused the fire, mean­ing ar­son can­not be ruled out.

Al­mena’s at­tor­ney, Tony Serra, re­peat­edly brought up in­stances in which fire, po­lice and other of­fi­cials toured the two-story build­ing and never said any­thing about it pos­ing a dan­ger.

KGO-TV VIA AP 2016

A fire in an Oak­land, Calif., ware­house named the Ghost Ship, killed 36 peo­ple. Jurors ac­quit­ted one man of in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter but dead­locked on an­other man.

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