Ghost Ship Warehouse Fire Trial: Defense Witness Says He Thinks Max Harris is Truthful - NBC Bay Area
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Ghost Ship Warehouse Fire Trial: Defense Witness Says He Thinks Max Harris is Truthful

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    Vicki Behringer
    Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris appear in court. (Feb. 20, 2018)

    Attorneys for Ghost Ship warehouse creative director Max Harris on Thursday called another character witness to the stand to testify that he thinks Harris is truthful.

    Artist Mike Funkhauser, who lived for a year at the warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue in Oakland's Fruitvale district where 36 people died during a music party on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, said, "Max is someone I knew I could always count on to tell me the truth."

    Funkhauser said, "Max was one of the few people in that constantly changing community, one of the pillars of people who lived at the warehouse who were dependable."

    Harris, 29, and Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, 49, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one for each of the 36 people who died of smoke inhalation at the warehouse.

    Prosecutors allege that Almena and Harris are criminally responsible for the fire because the people at the party didn't have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn't have important safeguards, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs.

    Prosecutors also allege that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse's lease by turning it into a living space and hosting underground music parties there.

    But defense attorneys allege that the fire was an act of arson that the two defendants couldn't have prevented.

    Prosecutor Autrey James asked Funkhauser if he would change his opinion about Harris' truthfulness if he saw a video of Harris telling police that no one lived at the warehouse. Such a video was shown to jurors earlier in the trial.

    Funkhauser said, "For me personally, I don't think Max would go around spewing lies if he altered the truth" on one occasion when he spoke to police.

    Defense attorneys called three other character witnesses for Harris to the stand on Monday and Wednesday.

    Nita Sturiale, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Arts and Design, which Harris attended until 2012, testified on Monday that Harris "tried very hard to be honest and was driven by that desire."

    Russell Butler, a DJ and artist called to the stand by Harris' lawyers, testified on Thursday that when he hosted a music party at the warehouse in January 2016, he paid $1,000 to rent the space and he thinks he gave the money to Harris.

    Butler estimated that 200 to 300 people attended that event, which he said lasted from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.

    There was less than a day and a half of testimony this week in the lengthy trial, as jurors were given the day off on Tuesday and Harris' lawyers ran out of witnesses in less than half an hour on Wednesday and in less than 90 minutes on Thursday.

    Harris is expected to take the witness stand at some point this coming Monday, when the trial resumes.

    Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson told Almena's lawyer Tony Serra to be ready to start calling witnesses on Tuesday afternoon, as she doesn't want to waste time because the courthouse will have to be closed on Wednesday if the Golden State Warriors win the NBA championship and there's a parade in Oakland that day.

    Thompson also said there's so much interest in the trial, which began on April 30 with opening statements, that she and other court officials are setting up an overflow room to accommodate more spectators.

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