Judge Denies Almena's Bid to Be Released From Jail Pending Second Trial

Derick Almena
Alameda County Sheriff's Office

A judge on Monday denied a defense motion asking that Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena be released from Santa Rita Jail in Dublin because his health is deteriorating and the novel coronavirus pandemic has made the conditions at the jail unsafe.

Almena, 49, is charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for a fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue in Oakland's Fruitvale district the night of Dec. 2, 2016, that killed 36 people.

A lengthy trial for Almena and co-defendant Max Harris, the warehouse's artistic director, ended last Sept. 5 with jurors deadlocked 10-2 in favor of convicting Almena and acquitting Harris of all charges. Harris was released from custody later that day but Almena remains in custody in lieu of $750,000 bail.

Alemana's second trial was scheduled to begin on Monday with pretrial motions, with jury selection to follow next week, but it's been postponed because California Supreme Court Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye has suspended all jury trials for 60 days, through May 22.

At a teleconference on Monday with Almena, defense lawyer Tony Serra and Alameda County prosecutors Casey Bates and Autrey James, Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson rescheduled Almena's trial for July 6.

However, Serra said it's possible the trial could be postponed again if the coronavirus pandemic isn't under control by July.

Serra said he asked that Almena, who has been in custody since he was arrested and charged in June 2017, be released on his own recognizance or a personal recognizance bond because his health is deteriorating and the conditions at Santa Rita are unsafe because of the possibility that inmates and deputies there could spread the coronavirus.

Serra said, "It's only a matter of time until the virus gets into Santa Rita and other jails."

He said Almena has put on a lot of weight since he's been in jail, has swollen lymph nodes that haven't been treated and other issues that leave him in horrible pain.

But Serra said Bates, the prosecutor, vigorously opposed the defense motion to release Almena and Thompson ruled that Almena should remain at Santa Rita in lieu of $750,000 bail.

Serra said Thompson's ruling is "a miscarriage of justice" and he will file a writ with the state appellate court in another effort to get Almena released from custody.

The veteran defense lawyer said Almena is not a danger to society and is not a flight risk because he wouldn't want to abandon his wife and children, who live in Lake County.

Referring to Almena's circumstances at Santa Rita, Serra said, "He's wilting away in there."

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