Trial for the Ghost Ship fire is underway. Here's what to expect.

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More than two years have passed since a blaze destroyed the live/work space called the Ghost Ship, killing 36 people. Yesterday, the trial involving defendants Derick Almena and Max Harris finally got underway, after stalls on the part of defendants' attorneys, Tony Serra and Curtis Briggs.

 

The part of the trial we see on TV--the opening statements, testimony, closing arguments, and the verdict--won't happen for weeks. First, the lead prosecutor-- Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Autrey James-- and the defense attorneys argue remaining motions and select the jury.

 

The drama started on Day One and I expect it to continue. According to a San Francisco Chronicle report, James said the defendants' attorneys wanted to argue that the D.A. improperly charged their clients. Both Almena and Harris face 36 counts of manslaughter.

 

When opening statements begin on April 30, I expect more heated debates and bold turns of events. Almena is charged because as the master tenant, he converted the building into a live/work artists' space without proper permits. Harris helped plan the music event that drew more than 100 people to the Ghost Ship on the night of the fire.

 

Of the many problems with the building, Almena and Harris knew about the faulty wiring, lack of fire exits and blocked stairway, but did nothing. Defendants' attorneys have attempted to shift the blame on the City of Oakland and the building's owner, Chor Ng and family. City officials, they say, checked out the building several times before the fire but didn't red-flag the space as dangerous. Ng, as the building owner, should have known about the hazardous conditions.

 

Last August, the victims' families expected a judge to sentence Almena and Harris to a few years in jail according to a plea agreement. But Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer struck it down. The deciding factor: a letter Almena wrote to his probation officer. In that letter, he reportedly blamed everyone but himself for the fire. Judge Cramer concluded the writings showed Almena had little remorse for his actions.

 

As the months progress and more facts emerge during trial, I expect we'll learn more about Almena's and Harris's attitudes toward their tenants, their guests the night of the fire, and the devastation that occurred. We may learn how the City of Oakland was negligent for not inspecting the building as required. We may hear about a "cover up" and about the defendants' inactions. 

 

No matter what we learn, or what the jury decides, it won't bring back those 36 young people. May the weeks ahead provide what they need to find closure to this tragedy. 

 

Photo courtesy of Sharon Hahn Darlin, Flickr

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David G. Smith, Attorney At Law
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