Ghost Ship warehouse fire defendants’ plea deals ‘swept aside’

Audrey McNamara/File

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Two defendants in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire case will face a jury tomorrow morning, after an Alameda County judge rejected their plea deals at a sentencing hearing Aug. 9.

The fire, which killed 36 people, including two UC Berkeley students, broke out Dec. 2, 2016 in a warehouse converted into an art collective, known as the Ghost Ship. The cause was attributed to inappropriate operation of the collective by the two defendants: warehouse tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris. The building failed to comply with city building and fire codes, and the defendants are charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Alameda County Judge Morris Jacobson previously accepted the defendants’ plea deals in July, sentencing Almena to 12 years in prison, with nine years in custody and three on mandatory supervision, and Harris to 10 years in prison, with six years in custody and four supervised years. But Judge James Cramer, who replaced Jacobson, vetoed the plea deals last week.

“It was a surprise to us when last Friday … Judge Cramer rejected the terms of the plea,” said Tyler Smith, Harris’ defense attorney.

Tony Serra, Almena’s defense attorney, expressed similar sentiments. He stated that “the plea agreement has been swept aside.”

Among the reasons Cramer cited for vetoing the plea deals were that the defendants did not show enough remorse and that the terms of the agreement were too lenient. The plea deal was made as a package deal involving both Almena and Harris, and since Cramer determined Almena’s deal to be too lenient, Harris’ plea deal was rejected as well.

Cramer’s decision to veto the pleas was spurred by the emotional testimonials given by the families of victims at the sentencing hearing last week.

“My client is on suicide watch and is in a psychologically depressed state of mind. He overwhelmingly showed remorse,” Serra said. “There’s no ears to hear it.”

Both defendants’ attorneys said they were disappointed by the veto. Smith said he is still optimistic about the scheduled hearing for the trial, adding that Cramer could potentially offer an open plea.

The families of victims have also been vocal in the case, expressing their desire for more acknowledgement of the defendants’ failure to make the Ghost Ship building secure. Serra said he feels that the families’ sentiments played an unjustifiably large role in Cramer’s veto.

“It’s absurd to make (the families) the arbitrators of the sentence, but that is what has occurred here,” said Serra. “No matter what my client did or did not do would be inadequate for the victims’ families.”

Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson also discussed the impact of the victims’ families’ sentiments to the case.

“The court is trying to be extra careful that the victims’ families’ wishes are being taken into account,” Levenson said. “If possible, (the defendants) should come back and show remorse.”

The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office has announced that no more plea agreements will be negotiated.

Contact Jasmine Sheena at [email protected].