Ghost Ship Trial: 29 Months After Deadly Fire, Opening Statements Set to Begin

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

The long-awaited opening statements in the trial of two men facing dozens of counts of involuntary manslaughter in the December 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire are expected to be held on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The warehouse, illegally converted into a living and event space, caught fire on Dec. 2, 2016, during an electronic music party, killing 35 concertgoers and one resident.

The two defendants, Derick Almena and Max Harris, each face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. If convicted, they could be sentenced to decades in prison.

Let’s take a look at the trial so far, and some of the key events that led up to it.

The Prosecution, Defense and Criminal Trial

The preliminary rounds of the criminal trial began April 2, and started with defense and prosecution arguments over what language may be used in the trial.

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Alameda County prosecutors argued that the defense should be barred from using such terms as “cover-up” and “scapegoat.” Prosecutors allege that Almena, the Ghost Ship's master tenant, and Harris, often described as his "second in command," had created a fire trap in the building, filling it with recreational vehicles, pianos and other items, blocking exits and failing to take adequate safety precautions before allowing people in.

The defense, however, has argued that Almena and Harris are taking the rap for those who should be held responsible, including property owner Chor Ng and her son and daughter, Kai and Eva Ng. Defense attorneys also point to a series of apparent failures by Oakland fire, police and building inspectors, among other government officials, who could have intervened to shut down the Ghost Ship or to force the owners to bring it up to code.

The defense also argued that prosecutors should be barred from using terms such as “fire trap,” “tinderbox” and “death trap” to describe the state of the Ghost Ship before it caught fire. Defense attorney Tony Serra, who represents Almena, called the terms argumentative and could unfairly sway a jury against his client. Curtis Briggs, who represents Harris, argued that such terms would never be used by experts.

Prosecutors called the terms necessary to describe the state of the warehouse before the blaze.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson ruled that the terms mentioned — cover-up, scapegoat, fire box and death trap, along with similar metaphors — would be restricted during opening statements, but allowed during testimony subject to objections.

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Kai and Eva Ng appeared in court on April 4 to attend a hearing to determine whether certain evidence would be admissible regarding the warehouse. Both Ngs refused to answer questions from the prosecution or defense, invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

On April 11, Judge Thompson quashed a defense subpoena for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf to testify, finding attorneys had failed to show she had personal knowledge of conditions in the warehouse prior to the fire.

The remainder of the month was largely taken up with jury selection, during which about 480 potential jurors filled out questionnaires.

If the trial remains on schedule, testimony would begin next week. The trial could last for months.

A Plea Deal Rejected

Last Aug. 10, Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer rejected a plea agreement that called for Almena to be sentenced to nine years in prison and Harris to six years.

Cramer said he was declining to approve the agreement, which had been negotiated under the supervision of another judge, because he felt Almena had not acknowledged his responsibility or shown remorse for the fatal blaze. He pointed to a 30-page letter Almena had submitted to probation officers prior to sentencing in which Cramer said Almena cast himself as a "victim and a witness."

In rejecting the deal — a decision that led to the case going to trial — Cramer cautioned victims' families that they may not get the answers they're seeking.

"Each of you is suffering immeasurably. A trial won't solve that," he said. "Those of you who want a trial to prove that the city or the Fire Department or the landlord is just as guilty as these two men are, you're not going to get that trial."

Victims' families have alleged in lawsuits that several Oakland city agencies failed in their duty to inspect the warehouse building or follow up on complaints about the premises. The lawsuits also claim PG&E failed to properly monitor, inspect and repair electrical equipment that provided power to the building. Warehouse owner Chor Ng is also a defendant in the civil cases.

This story includes reporting from The Associated Press.

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