The jury came to a verdict Wednesday in the Ghost Ship trial, over a month after jurors first began deliberations, and over five months since the trial first began.
The verdict began read at 2 p.m. PT, and as East Bay Times reporter Thomas Peele tweeted, there was a "snafu" with the jurors' verdict forms, that delayed the process of reading them. As of 2:43 p.m., East Bay Times reporter David DeBolt tweeted the verdict: Max Harris has been acquitted of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and the jury is hung on Derick Almena's guilt. Prosecutors will now have to decide if they will bring Almena to trial again.
As KRON 4 reports, the split on Almena was 10 jurors voting for guilty, and 2 voting for not guilty.
Breaking: #GhostShipTrial: Max Harris acquitted, jury hung on Derick Almena— David DeBolt (@daviddebolt) September 5, 2019
Only about a half dozen reporters were allowed into the small courtroom alongside several dozen friends and family of the fire victims, but the media was not allowed to tweet from the courtroom, which also contributed to the delay in reportage.
We'll bring you further updates here as attorneys and family members exit the courtroom this afternoon.
Update: Speaking outside the courtroom, Harris's defense attorney Curtis Briggs thanked the community for their support, and thanked the jury for understanding his client's lack of culpability.
Briggs also praised the media, and he said "it can not be overstated the role that the press played in seeking justice in this case."
Harris will reportedly continue to live in the Bay Area, and friends and supporters have planned a vegan meal for him to celebrate, since his access to decent food has been limited since he's been sitting in Santa Rita Jail for two years.
The goal, according to Max’s attorney, is to get him back on his feet. His supporters have long planned a vegan meal for Harris, whose food options were limited at Santa Rita jail, where he’s been kept in solitary confinement since June 2017.— David DeBolt (@daviddebolt) September 5, 2019
Also speaking outside the courtroom was Harris's other attorney, Tyler Smith, who said that the reason warehouses like the Ghost Ship exist around Oakland "is because of the housing crisis we continue to face." And he adds that Harris has "always expressed his remorse and always wished he could have done something more to save someone" the night of the fire.
Almena's flamboyant defense attorney, Tony Serra, came out of the court and told reporters, "I'm angry, I'm frustrated, but goddamnit we'll win next time." He added that there will now be a hearing on October 4 at which a new trial date will be set for Almena, and he said, "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."
Speaking on a live broadcast on KRON 4 this afternoon before the verdict was read, legal expert Paula Canny suggested that defendants Derick Almena and Max Harris were never the "most sympathetic" figures to "the average jury," given their anti-establishment attitudes and Harris' visible tattoos. And, she says, while the defense's argument that these two were scapegoated has plenty of validity, she feels like public sentiment has wanted to hold the two defendants accountable.
Almena and Harris have stood accused for over two years of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in a case that has riveted the Bay Area since the tragedy of December 2, 2016. The families of the victims who have spoken to the media since the trial began have naturally indicated that they want a guilty verdict in the case, but a number of factors have likely complicated the jurors' decision — not the least of which is the relative culpability of the two defendants, with Almena being largely responsible for the conception and construction of what many have called a fire trap of an artists' warehouse. Also, the defense has tried to portray the city of Oakland, and police and fire department officials, as negligent and well aware of the problematic interior of the warehouse.
Additionally, the defense tried to cast doubt about the cause of the fire, calling several witnesses who believed they saw possible arsonists flee the building just before the fire began — the final cause determination by inspectors was inconclusive, though no evidence of arson was ever found.
Both defendants were set to accept a plea deal last summer that would have avoided this entire trial, and likely would have gotten them out of prison fairly soon given time served — but Almena's lack of credible remorse in sentencing hearing led a judge to reject the plea deal sending the case to trial.
Below is a video tribute that KQED Arts made to the 36 victims in the fire, most of them in the prime of their lives.
The case sparked local and national debates about the affordability crisis, with the availability of cheap housing and studio space for artists near the cities where they find community and income often being difficult or impossible to find.
But at the center of the case has always been the troubling lack of responsibility for safety that Almena seemed to exhibit, according to former residents of the warehouse and friends who spoke to him over the years.
There has been drama surrounding the jury deliberations as well, with three jurors having to be replaced with alternates two weeks ago, right before the jury was scheduled to take a break. The jurors then technically had to begin deliberations all over again with their new panel of 12, and pressure for a verdict was mounting as at least one other juror had an upcoming scheduling conflict.