DA: No More Plea Deals in Ghost Ship Criminal Case

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Autrey James discusses a now-abandoned plea deal on July 3. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Alameda County's district attorney has told a judge she will no longer consider plea deals for two men charged in a 2016 warehouse fire that killed 36 people attending an unlicensed concert, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday.

In a letter to the judge presiding over the case, District Attorney Nancy O'Malley also asked for a trial date to be set soon on the 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter each man faces.

The two are scheduled to appear in court on Friday for the first time since Judge James Cramer rejected a plea deal negotiated by O'Malley's office and lawyers for Derick Almena and Max Harris.

O'Malley told the judge she changed her position on plea negotiations after grieving families of the fire victims testified last week that that they were unhappy with the proposed prison sentences, which they felt were too short.

Many of the relatives also demanded that the two men stand trial so they could learn more about how and why their loved ones died. Investigators have been unable to determine the cause of the Dec. 2, 2016 fire.

Sponsored

O'Malley said "having heard the words and seen the pain of those profoundly impacted" convinced her that the two should stand trial rather than resolving their cases with a plea deal.

"The grief of the families, the pain and shock of the community by the senseless and tragic deaths of 36 individuals caused by a fire that roared through the warehouse is as strong and deep today as it was in December 2016," O'Malley wrote. "These lives were lost at the hands of the two defendants."

Almena had agreed to a nine-year prison sentence and Harris agreed to a six-year term in exchange for both men pleading no contest to all charges. Almena rented the Oakland, California warehouse and illegally converted it into an underground live-work space for area artists and an entertainment venue called the Ghost Ship. Almena hired Harris to help manage the facility by collecting rent, booking concerts among other duties.

They are the only people facing criminal charges for the deadliest structure fire since 100 people died in a Rhode Island nightclub fire.

The proposed deal had been brokered by another judge who accepted the men's no-contest pleas in July and was expected to uphold the agreement when the pair appeared in court last week for formal sentencing.

But that judge was unavailable and Cramer was assigned to preside over the two-day hearing.

As it ended, Cramer said Almena failed to adequately express remorse and that he would not uphold the plea deal. Cramer cited a letter Almena wrote probation officials where Almena said that he and his family are also victims of the fire.

Cramer said he believed Harris was truly remorseful and that the "deal is fair." But since the plea bargain was a package deal, he had no choice but to reject Harris' proposed sentence as well.

Harris' attorney, Tyler Smith, said he is hopeful that Cramer will ultimately decide to sentence Harris to six years in prison despite the new objections raised by O'Malley, the district attorney, in her the letter to the judge.

Sponsored

O'Malley told the judge she now opposes the six-year sentence because "victims' families strongly disagree" with it.

Volume
KQED Live
Live Stream
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
Live Stream information currently unavailable.
Share
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
KQED Live

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.