Oakland Judge Keeps Ghost Ship Case on Track for April 2 Start

The judge kept the trial of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris on track Friday by denying a motion to dismiss the case as well as a motion to postpone the case, which involves the 2016 fire that killed 36 people.

Lawyers for Almena, 48, and Harris, 29, who are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on Dec. 2, 2016, argued that the charges should be dismissed because potentially exonerating evidence was destroyed, lost or altered under the watch of prosecutors.

But at the end of a lengthy hearing on the issue, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson said, "What I heard does not give rise to having the court dismiss this case."

However, Thompson left open the possibility that defense lawyers could ask that jurors be given an instruction that potentially exonerating evidence was lost.

Harris' attorney Max Briggs filed a motion earlier this week asking to delay the trial for six months because of newly-discovered evidence and because he has other trials coming up in the near future.

But Thompson denied that motion as well, saying that Briggs should have plenty of time to develop that new evidence because Briggs most likely won't begin presenting evidence on behalf of Harris for at least several months.

Thompson's ruling means that the trial for Almena and Harris is still scheduled to begin on April 2, the date that was set last September, with hearings to determine what testimony will be allowed in the case followed by jury selection, which is expected to be lengthy.

Based on estimates by the attorneys in the case, Thompson said it appears that there will be 12 to 18 weeks of testimony.

She said that time period could be increased if the attorneys extensively cross-examine witnesses and if the court accommodates summer vacation requests by the jurors who are selected for the case.

In arguing that the charges be dismissed, Almena's lawyer Tony Serra said the way that investigating agencies, including the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Oakland Fire Department, handled the evidence in the case "was a disgrace."

Serra said, "We (the defense) are deprived of potential and apparent exonerating evidence," as the cause of the fire was never determined.

Briggs said the way the evidence was handled "must be the greatest example of investigative incompetence in California history."

But Alameda County prosecutor Autrey James told Thompson, "Your honor, there's been no bad faith" in terms of not preserving as much evidence as possible.

James said the fire destroyed much of the evidence in the case, which made determining the cause impossible, and the prosecution has given the defense more than 12,000 pages of documents and hundreds of hours of video and audio recordings.

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