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Ghost Ship trial jury breaks for weekend without reaching verdict

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Jim Heaphy, Cullen328 on Wikimedia Commons
Site of the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, Calif. Thirty-six people were killed in a fire that erupted at the Fruitvale District artist collective warehouse during a live music show on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.

Jurors went home for the weekend on Thursday afternoon without reaching a verdict in the trial of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris for a 2016 fire that killed 36 people at the Oakland building.

The nine-woman, three-man panel, which has now deliberated for four and a half days, will return on Monday in the case against Almena, 49, and Harris, 29, who are each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.

Jurors submitted two written legal questions in their first hour of deliberations on July 31 but haven’t asked any questions since then. On Wednesday they asked for an iPad so they could view a three-dimensional rendering of the 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale district that prosecutors displayed during the three-month long trial and they were given an iPad on Thursday.

When Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson dismissed jurors at the end of the day Thursday she told them they can use the iPad again Monday if needed.

Prosecutors allege that Almena and Harris, who face a maximum term of 39 years if convicted, are criminally responsible for the blaze during a music party at the warehouse, which served as an artists’ collective.

Prosecutors say the people at the music party didn’t have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn’t have important safeguards such as fire sprinklers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs. Prosecutors also allege that Almena and Harris violated terms of the building’s lease, which only called for it to be used as a warehouse for an artists’ collective, by turning it into a living space for up to 25 people and hosting underground music parties there.

But defense attorneys allege the fire was an act of arson that Almena and Harris couldn’t have prevented. Defense attorneys also say firefighters, police officers and other authorities who visited the building before the deadly fire never told the two men that they thought it was unsafe or told them to make changes to bring it up to code.

Thompson’s courtroom has been packed throughout the trial and court officials accommodated people by making an overflow room available during key parts of the case, including during closing arguments last week. However, Thompson has decided not to make the overflow room available when the jury announces its verdict, which means that many reporters and members of the public won’t be able to hear the verdict firsthand.

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