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Ghost Ship jury breaks until after Labor Day without reaching verdict

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Nik Wojcik/SFBay
Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, Calif.

The revised jury panel in the trial of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris didn’t reach a verdict in its second full day of deliberations on Wednesday and won’t return until the day after Labor Day.

Almena, 49, and Harris, 29, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for a fire at a music party at the 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, which served as an artists’ collective, that killed 36 people the night of Dec. 2, 2016.

The lengthy case, which began April 30, was submitted to jurors July 31 but on Monday, their 10th day of deliberations, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson dismissed three jurors for alleged misconduct, replaced them with three alternates and ordered the panel to start deliberating from scratch.

Thompson hasn’t disclosed the nature of the alleged misconduct, but in her comments to attorneys in hearings outside the presence of jurors she has indicated that it may be for violating her admonishment to jurors not to read materials outside the scope of the evidence in the trial and not to discuss the case outside the deliberating room, even with other jurors. At the beginning of the case Thompson scheduled a lengthy break from Thursday until Sept. 3 so that jurors have time to transport their children to college.

The jury’s after Labor Day week remains unclear, as many jurors have made requests for additional days off in September and October, even though Thompson warned them at the beginning of the case that it might last until the end of October.

At a hearing Wednesday Thompson said one juror wants to be off from Sept. 9 to Sept. 14, another wants to be off from Sept 19 to Oct. 5 and a third wants to be off from Sept. 26 to Oct. 2.

Thompson said she would deal with those requests as those dates approach if a verdict isn’t reached by then.

The judge also said she has modified the gag order she imposed Monday barring the attorneys in the case from talking to news media. However, Thompson said lawyers in the case are still barred from talking about closed hearings she held Monday to discuss the alleged juror misconduct.

Thompson said Tuesday that she has initiated contempt of court proceedings against two of the three dismissed jurors for allegedly not obeying her instructions to them.

On Wednesday Thompson strongly warned the attorneys not to disclose what was said in the closed hearings.

She said:

“Anything said in closed session shall not discussed in the public area.”

“A violation of my order can result in contempt.”

Repeating her admonishment twice to emphasize her point, Thompson told the attorneys:

“Do not flirt with that issue. Do not flirt with that issue.”

Some of the fire victims’ family members came to the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse, where the trial is taking place, Wednesday afternoon in case a verdict was reached but they declined to comment when they left at the end of the day.

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