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Judge sets aggressive schedule for Ghost Ship trial

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The judge in the case of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris announced on Tuesday an aggressive and optimistic schedule for their trial on charges related to the 2016 fire that killed 36 people.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson said she expects jury selection in the high-profile case to only take two weeks and tentatively scheduled opening statements for April 30 and May 1 and testimony to begin on May 6.

Thompson also said she expects prosecutors to finish presenting their case by late May, at which time the defense would begin presenting its case.

Thompson’s proposed schedule is more optimistic than the schedule suggested by Judge Morris Jacobson when he was overseeing the case last year. Jacobson said he expected that jury selection could take two months or more and it might take prosecutors two months to present their case.

The trial for Almena and Harris didn’t start last year because Jacobson worked out a plea agreement for the two men but that agreement was later thrown out by another judge at the end of an emotional two-day sentencing hearing.

Almena, 48, and Harris, 29, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on Dec. 2, 2016.

Their trial technically began on Tuesday with a hearing on what witnesses and evidence will be allowed in the case.

Thompson said it appears that “the most controversial” issue is the defense’s contention that in filing the criminal charges against Almena and Harris, prosecutors made the two men scapegoats for negligence by the warehouse’s owners and by city of Oakland officials who knew about safety issues at the building but allegedly didn’t do enough to correct them. Thompson said she will allow some evidence to be admitted about potential negligence by the building owners and the city, but said the main focus of the trial should be on whether Almena and Harris are criminally negligent.

“I’m concerned that the sideshow will become the main show,” Thompson said.

Harris’ lawyer Curtis Briggs said, “In our eyes there absolutely has been a coverup and negligence by the city.”

Briggs alleged that, “The mayor (Libby Schaaf) and the city are doing a huge tap dance to avoid responsibility for these deaths.” Almena’s lawyer Tony Serra said, “There’s been a cover up and scapegoating and we need the mayor” as a witness.

The defense has subpoenaed Schaaf to appear as a witness and Thompson scheduled a hearing for April 11 on a motion by Schaaf to quash the subpoena so she doesn’t have to testify.

Thompson said she will bring in at least 320 jurors next Monday and Tuesday to fill out questionnaires and said the attorneys in the case will question them April 16 through 18 and April 22 through 25. She said she hopes to have 12 regular jurors and 6 alternates by that time. Thompson said the prosecution and the defense will each be allowed up to 20 peremptory challenges.

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