Derick Almena, who has been in jail for three years in connection with the December 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland that claimed the lives of 36 people, is likely to be released this weekend as an Alameda County judge has granted his attorneys' request.
Almena, who turns 50 next week, has reportedly been in deteriorating health, and defense attorney Tony Serra had already requested his immediate release at a hearing 10 days ago. Judge Trina Thompson, who presided over Almena's trial last year, denied that motion for release, and denied bail for Almena, announcing that a new trial date would be set for July 6.
While his codefendant Max Harris was acquitted in September, a jury was deadlocked on Almena's guilt or innocence, and so he's remained at Santa Rita jail awaiting a second trial.
On Wednesday, two days after California judicial leaders eliminated bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies in order to address coronavirus-spreading concerns at state prisons, and after reports of 11 confirmed COVID-19 cases at Santa Rita, Judge Thompson decided to release Almena under electronic monitoring, until his trial. As the Chronicle reports, defense attorney Vincent Barrientos appears to have successfully argued that Almena was especially vulnerable to a severe case of the virus if he were infected.
Serra told the Mercury News on Wednesday, "I’m very optimistic that he will be out very quickly," after the judge indicated her decision about ankle monitoring. If he is released, the judge said Almena will be barred from having any contact with witnesses or fire victims' families.
Hundreds of inmates have already been granted release from jails around the Bay Area since the pandemic lockdowns began, and thousands more have been let out in California. As the Associated Press reports, 3,500 nonviolent inmates who were scheduled for parole in the next 60 days have also been granted early release.
The Alameda County District Attorney's office has denounced Judge Thompson's decision, saying, "[We have] consistently sought to have Mr. Almena remain in custody pending trial, and we have opposed every effort to release Mr. Almena to date."
Almena is now scheduled for a court teleconference Friday, and may be released by the weekend.