Graphic photos of the victims also cannot be used as evidence, as the two Ghost Ship proprietors face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Two years and four months to the day after the tragic, notorious Ghost Ship fire claimed the lives of 36 people, the trial began Tuesday for defendants Derick Almena and Max Harris. Both face 36 counts involuntary manslaughter in the warehouse fire, according to the East Bay Times, and Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson considered several motions about what words, witnesses, and evidence the jury will be allowed to hear.
KQED reports that both Almena and Harris donned suits instead of their prison jumpsuits (as is a defendant’s right), as they’re both still in custody over the harrowing Dec. 2, 2016 fire at which a maze of bad wiring and blatant fire code violations quickly turned a rave into a deadly inferno. Prosecutors say Almena and Harris are to blame for knowingly hosting the victims in slapdash fire trap. The defense blames elusive landlord Chor Ng, and alleges that Oakland police and fire departments were negligent in monitoring the space.
Harris’ attorney Curtis Briggs declared, “The mayor and the city are doing a huge tap dance to avoid responsibility for these deaths," according to Bay City News Service.
(Prosecutors also filed a motion asking that the civil trial against Ng detailed below not be mentioned in this criminal trial. That civil trial also names names PG&E and the city of Oakland as defendants, and there was a hearing in that case Tuesday afternoon in which the Ngs pleaded the Fifth.)
The landlord Ng family (many question why they weren't charged) and Ben Cannon, which we have shown did unlicensed electricial work at Ghost Ship before the fire, are refusing to answer questions in the civil case.— David DeBolt (@daviddebolt) April 3, 2019
They are pleading the 5th Amendment, under possible self-incrimination. It's becoming clearer the Ngs and Cannon won't answer questions until after Dec. 2, 2019, after the criminal statute to prosecute them for statements. Could delay the civil case, scheduled for Oct 2019— David DeBolt (@daviddebolt) April 3, 2019
In a curious motion, Alameda County deputy district attorney Autrey James argued that the defense should be barred from using the terms "cover-up" and "scapegoat" (Almena and Harris’ lawyers have been fond of these words). Judge Thompson agreed, in part, and ruled that the defense cannot utter those words in opening arguments, but they can say them during the trial and during closing arguments.
Judge Thompson has already expressed concern that the scope of the defense's arguments will extend too far beyond what is being is of central concern in this trial — namely whether or not Almena's and Harris' own actions constitute guilt in those 36 deaths.
Per KQED, Judge Thompson said, "The sideshow might become the show. My biggest fear is the parties get so distracted not looking at Dec. 2 and what led up to it."
Prosecutors also asked the judge to deny the defense’s motion to subpoena Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf to testify. Judge Thompson agreed to hear that motion April 11, and also ruled that graphic photos of the victims’ charred remains can not be used as evidence in this criminal trial.
The wheels of justice will seemingly move slowly, and this trial could take up to two months according to Judge Thompson's anticipated timeline (though Bay City News calls that timeline “optimistic and aggressive,” and yesterday we heard a timeline of 12 to 18 weeks). The defense is arguing more motions today, and jury selection is expected to take most of the month of April. Opening statements are scheduled for April 30 and May 1, with testimony expected to begin May 6. KQED notes in their report that as many as 200 witnesses could be called to the stand before this thing is all over.