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Ghost Ship Jury Drama Complicates Trial

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Finding suitable jurors to decide the fate of two men in a nationally covered story would prove to be a challenge from the very beginning. Keeping the jury in line throughout the long and emotional Ghost Ship trial has proven more of a headache than the selection itself.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson is getting weary of the drama that has plagued an already complicated case. The trial against against Derick Almena and Max Harris, both charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the 36 lives lost in the deadly warehouse fire on Dec. 2, 2016, would never be easy, but does it really need to be this hard?

The emotional toil on friends and family of the 36 victims is palpable. They’ve been at this now for years with the first legal proceeding ending in August 2018 when Judge James Cramer hesitantly rejected a plea deal that would have severely cut sentencing for both men, forcing the case to jury trial.

Pictures of the 36 victims who died in the Oakland, Calif. Ghost Ship Fire. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle

Since the trial began in April, Thompson has had to repeatedly remind jurors, press, attorneys and members of family and friends of what is appropriate and inappropriate communication. Keeping all parties in check is a difficult task in a case as sensitive and publicized as this story and Thompson has shown an immense amount of grace and patience throughout the lengthy process.

However, Monday brought news of a “major announcement,” which to the disappointment of many was not a verdict but a last straw for Thompson in terms of juror and attorney behavior. After a closed session where the judge spoke directly to each juror, it was announced that three of the 12 were released and replaced with alternates. Thompson also placed a gag order on all trial participants, with a stern eye toward the way attorneys have spoken to the press. She modified the order Wednesday, allowing attorneys to speak with press about the case with the exception of material disclosed in closed session. She was adamant about that piece.

Both sets of defense attorneys for Almena and Harris took the opportunity Monday, actually three opportunities, to use the jury drama as reason to argue the case be dismissed as a mistrial. Thompson denied all three requests.

With the new jury members added to the mix, the judge demanded that deliberation, which had already been in process for 10 days, restart from the beginning so new jurors could catch up.

Thompson shared with the court Tuesday that two of the three dismissed jurors would face contempt of court charges and the third was kicked off for having information about inappropriate behavior of the other two. There is only one alternate juror remaining on the sidelines, meaning that if more than one issue occurs requiring a replacement, the case will automatically be dismissed as a mistrial.

To further complicate the issue, three members of the jury have requested time off for vacations at different times through September and October, possibly requiring Thompson to tap into that last alternate or push the deliberation schedule out further than anyone involved would care for. Wednesday marked the end of deliberation until after Labor Day and it was reported shortly after 4 p.m. that they, not surprisingly, did not reach a verdict.

Unfortunately, the drama surrounding the logistics of the case have somewhat overshadowed what the trial is actually about. At the end of the day, the family and friends of 36 victims want someone or multiple someones to be held accountable for the death of their loved ones during an electronic music show at the artist collective warehouse in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. It is a contentious debate as to whether Almena and Harris are ultimately responsible, and further, whether they have been used as scapegoats for criminal neglect on the part of the Ng family, who owns the property, the City of Oakland and the Oakland Fire Department.

The jury will return Sept. 3 and Thompson has said she will address each vacation request as the time approaches, hoping the arrival of a verdict will mitigate the need for further rearrangement.

 

 

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.