Ghost Ship Trial Begins, Opening Statements Expected at End of Month

The Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland, seen on April 2, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Opening statements are now expected for late April in the trial of two men charged with 36 counts each of involuntary manslaughter after the deadly fire at an East Oakland warehouse two years ago.

A warehouse illegally converted into a living and event space caught fire on Dec. 2, 2016, during an electronic music party. The blaze killed 35 concert-goers and one resident of the building known as the "Ghost Ship."

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Defendants Derick Almena and Max Harris, both wearing suits and with hair tucked back in ponytails, sat next to their lawyers in an Oakland courtroom on Tuesday — the first day of the trial — while Judge Trina Thompson heard several motions from the prosecution.

Prosecutors in the case allege that master tenant Almena, 48, and 29-year-old Harris, who was considered second-in-command of the building, had created a fire trap in the building.

Defense attorneys have argued Almena and Harris are scapegoats and that the building’s owner, Chor Ng, should face criminal charges.

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Autrey James argued that the defense should be barred from using the terms "cover-up" and "scapegoat."

Thompson said she would not allow the defense to use the terms during opening arguments.

"The sideshow might become the show," she said from the bench. "My biggest fear is the parties get so distracted not looking at Dec. 2 and what led up to it."

But the judge ruled defense attorneys can otherwise use the words. The prosecution, Thompson said, could always object.

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Almena's attorney Tony Serra said the defendants are taking the blame in a case that was handled poorly by Oakland officials as well as the city's fire and police departments.

"It has been our position from the beginning," Serra said.

Another motion from the prosecution would exclude Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf from testifying during the trial. Thompson will hear a motion to quash the defense's subpoena on April 11.

Thompson anticipated opening statements in the trial would begin on April 30 and May 1. Testimony is expected to begin May 6. The trial could last for months and involve more than 200 witnesses.

Selecting a jury will likely take most of April.

Judge Thompson is expected to hear motions from the defense on Wednesday.

A gag order went into effect on Jan. 18 that bans the attorneys and defendants from speaking to the public, and won’t be lifted until at least the last juror is sworn in.