The always talkative and colorful Tony Serra, who served as lead defense attorney for Ghost Ship fire defendant Derick Almena, spoke to reporters outside the Alameda County courthouse Thursday and explained why several jurors were removed from deliberations by the judge two and a half weeks ago.
Serra said that he believed the judge's earlier gag order on the attorneys was automatically lifted after the verdict was delivered. And he explained that the primary reason that one of three jurors was removed was that she communicated outside the deliberation room with a firefighter "of her acquaintance." That firefighter apparently told the juror that had SF Fire Department officials entered the Ghost Ship warehouse when they had previously arrived at the space in the months or years before the fire, they would have necessarily had to report the code violations inside.
The other two jurors dismissed apparently communicated with that first juror, and one of them changed her verdict having heard this explanation. The judge removed the jurors because it is forbidden for jurors to hear evidence or testimony outside of what was presented in the courtroom.
Serra insisted in his brief talk with reporters that, if prosecutors decide to go back to trial with Almena's case, "We may hang again next time, but we will not lose. We know what their witnesses had to say, and next time we'll do better."
The drama around the deliberations likely impacted some aspect of the verdict and lack thereof — as KRON 4 reported Wednesday, one of the final events in the jury was to hear a re-reading of testimony by an Oakland fire captain about the fire department's visit to the Ghost Ship warehouse in September 2014, when they responded to a call about an arson of a couch on the sidewalk outside.
As the Mercury News reports, the jury sent a note to the judge on Wednesday asking to rehear testimony given by Oakland Fire Capt. George Freelen about a "pre-planning inspection" he did inside the space a few days after that arson incident. He says that he wrote a report declaring that the RVs, wooden structures, and multiple pianos inside presented a "medium to high risk" of fire, but that report was somehow lost.
Firefighter union president Dan Robertson told the East Bay Times that Freelen should absolutely be trusted that he wrote a report on the building. Furthermore, Robertson and firefighter Jose Yanez both helped fight the fire on the night of December 2, 2016, and Yanez recalled Robertson saying on their way to the fire that his colleague had been inside the warehouse and they would have tough time fighting the fire "due to its cluttered state."