\he case against Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris for a fire at the warehouse in Oakland’s in December 2016 that killed 36 people is back to square one after a judge made a surprising decision today to reject a plea agreement.
At the end of an emotional two-day sentencing hearing for Almena, 48, and Harris, 28, Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer appeared to be ready to accept an agreement on July 3 in which they each pleaded no contest to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on Dec. 2, 2016.
Cramer said he understood why family members and friends of the 36 victims thought the agreement was too lenient, because it only called for Almena to serve 9 years in the county jail and for Harris to serve only 6 years.
But Cramer initially appeared to defend the deal, which was brokered by another judge who wasn’t available for the sentencing hearing, saying “strong attorneys on both sides resolved the case,” and prosecutors Autry James and David Lim “evaluated the case with the highest ethical standards.”
Cramer said one reason prosecutors resolved the case was that there are “holes in their case” against Almena and Harris and there’s no guarantee the two men would be convicted if their case went to trial.
But Cramer then suddenly shifted his tone and said that although he believes the agreement was appropriate for Harris because he has shown “unconditional remorse from the outset” and immediately accepted responsibility, he believes it’s not appropriate for Almena because he thinks Almena still isn’t fully acknowledging responsibility and expressing remorse for the fire.
Cramer said he based his opinion on a 30-page letter that Almena recently wrote to probation officials in which he claimed that various governmental agencies also are responsible for the fire, because they didn’t warn him about the fire dangers at the warehouse.
Cramer said because the plea agreement was “a package deal” that would only work if both Almena and Harris pleaded no contest and were sentenced together, he was therefore required to reject the entire agreement and set the case for trial.
He ordered the parties in the case to return to court next Friday at which time another possible plea agreement could be discussed or a trial date could be set.
The victims’ family members and friends appeared to be happy Cramer rejected the deal, as several of them applauded him, but they declined to comment to reporters when they left the courtroom.
Almena’s lawyer Tony Serra said Cramer’s ruling “was totally unexpected” but he said, “We’re not dismayed, we’re not overwhelmed, we’re not angry and we’re not frustrated.”
Serra said it’s possible a plea agreement could still be reached before the case goes to trial but said Almena wouldn’t accept a deal that called for him to serve much more than the 9-year term that was included in the July 3 agreement.
Serra said many family members of the victims appear to want Almena to serve 36 years, which would be one year per victim, but he said such a long term is “irrational” and Almena would never agree to anything like that.
Serra said another possibility is that Harris, who he admitted played a lesser role in the fire, could negotiate a plea agreement on his own and Almena would then stand trial by himself.
But Serra said he wouldn’t mind such a scenario, because he thinks Almena would have a better chance of being acquitted under that scenario.
He said that’s because he thinks juries like to compromise, and he believes if Almena and Harris stood trial together, a jury might acquit Harris but convict Almena in the spirit of compromise.
Serra said if the case goes to trial, he won’t be available until sometime next year because he’s already committed to other cases this fall.
Harris’ lawyer Curtis Briggs declined to comment on the case when he left court Friday.