Jurors acquitted one of two men standing trial on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the deadly Ghost Ship fire in an Oakland, California, warehouse.
The jury acquitted Max Harris, 29, for the deaths of over three dozen people during the Dec. 2, 2016, blaze. The jury is hung in the verdict of Derick Almena, 49.
Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Harris, spoke to reporters inside the courthouse after the verdict was read, first taking a moment of silence to honor the victims and their families.
“As somebody who’s lost a child, I understand the pain and I know that they likely will never be able to find peace with what happened,” Briggs said.
Brian Getz from Almena’s legal team wept as he reacted to the hung jury.
“I never thought that the trial should have been held against Derick because I didn’t feel that he was responsible for any more than a lot of other people were responsible,” Getz told reporters.
Pressed on Almena’s accountability, Getz said his client might be “morally responsible” but that a “combination of circumstances” ultimately led to the fire.
Both Almena’s and Harris’s legal teams also pointed at the massive wealth disparity and housing crisis in the Bay Area ― and particularly in Oakland ― as factors in the tragedy. Artists like those who lived at and frequented the Ghost Ship warehouse likely did so because they couldn’t afford to go elsewhere, the attorneys suggested.
“These artists were living in this warehouse because they didn’t have too many other options,” said Tyler Smith, an attorney for Harris. Smith also noted that there are other warehouses in Oakland still operating similar artist living spaces.
Getz said he partially holds responsible “the people governing a society where we are in one of the richest areas in the nation and you step over bodies when you cross the street.”
Briggs called on leaders in Oakland and the broader Alameda County “to use this as an opportunity to clean house.”
“The community cannot be safe until we get accountable leadership in the city and in the county,” he said.
Almena was the master tenant who leased Ghost Ship to other artists, while Harris lived at the space and worked for Almena by collecting rent from other tenants.
The warehouse served as part artist collective, part event space. A concert and dance party were taking place there on the night the fire broke out. Prosecutors in the case said the 10,000-square-foot space contained just one smoke detector and one exit sign, making the warehouse a death trap for those inside.
The jury began deliberating after closing arguments by the attorneys on July 31. On the 10th day of deliberations Monday, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson dismissed three jurors and appointed alternates to take their places. No reason was given for the jurors’ dismissal.
The shake-up came just days after jurors requested a read-back of the entire testimony from Almena, along with that of Nico Bouchard, who co-signed the warehouse lease with Almena, and Ryan O’Keefe, who was at Ghost Ship on the night of the fire.
Bouchard testified on May 6 that he became concerned Almena was violating the lease by making structural changes to the warehouse both without proper permits and without regard for safety regulations.
O’Keefe’s testimony took place on May 7, when he noted he was outside the warehouse stamping hands for the party.
Almena took the stand from July 8 to 11, saying he was “tired, broken” and “just so sad.”
Both Almena and Harris have been in jail since their arrests in June 2017. A judge last year rejected a plea deal package for the defendants, saying Almena hadn’t accepted “full responsibility and remorse” for the deadly fire.
The judge on Thursday set Oct. 4 as the date to begin the process for a potential retrial of Almena.
This article has been updated with a response from a victim’s relative and information about the next court date.
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