The judge in the trial of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris on Wednesday threatened for a second time to close the trial to the public because of issues with jurors.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson said she also is considering sequestering the jury because of improper “communications with jurors” and to make sure jurors don’t talk to their spouses about the case. Almena, 49, and Max Harris, 29, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. late on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, that killed 36 people. Thompson told jurors if they get information about the case outside of court they shouldn’t share it with other jurors.
Thompson said sharing improper information “could be misconduct and could cause a mistrial and this case would have to start all over.” When the jurors weren’t in her courtroom Thompson told the lawyers in the case, “I have an open courtroom policy and I don’t want to sequester the jury or close the courtroom” but will consider those options if she has to.
The judge said she will hold a closed hearing late Thursday afternoon to ask jurors if they’ve been influenced by possibly inappropriate communications.
On the first day of the trial on April 30 Thompson also threatened to close the trial to the media and the public because of what she said were attempts to communicate with jurors.
Thompson told jurors on Wednesday that continued interruptions for various issues in the case could cause the trial to last until October. The main witness on Wednesday was former Oakland Assistant Fire Marshal Cesar Avila, who testified that the RVs and trailers that were at the warehouse in Oakland before the deadly fire weren’t allowed under the city’s building and fire codes.
Asked by Alameda County prosecutor Casey Bates if it was permissible for the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. to have RVS and trailers used as living spaces, Avila, who is now an Alameda County Deputy Fire Marshal working for the city of Emeryville, said, “Absolutely not.” Avila said the building code doesn’t allow RVs in warehouses because they could have fuel and propane tanks that could make fires burn more intensely.
“There are a lot of fluids that could augment a fire.”
He added that batteries for RVS “are another potential augmentation” for fires.
In cross-examining Avila, attorneys for Almena and Harris tried to redirect the blame for the fire to city and county officials whose job is to understand the fire code and flag buildings for dangerous conditions. Harris’ lawyer Curtis Briggs tried to show that only an expert could understand all the intricacies of the fire code, getting Avila to admit that the code is about 4 inches thick.
Briggs also suggested that an average person such as Harris couldn’t understand all the fire code rules.
Under cross-examination, Avila said that the day after the fire he examined city records to see if the Ghost Ship warehouse had ever been inspected and he couldn’t find any indication that it had been.