You could say that Max Harris can breathe a sigh of relief: according to CBS San Francisco, the creative director was found not guilty on thirty-six counts of manslaughter this Thursday. The charges stemmed from a deadly 2016 fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, which claimed the lives of thirty-six people. Deliberations ended and the jury reached a verdict on Harris but was hung on manslaughter charges against Derick Almena, the warehouse’s master tenant, at a deadlock of 10-2. The case was turbulent, to say the least, as it saw three jurors dismissed and multiple contradicting stories. Harris seems to have avoided a conviction but Almena is expected to face another trial.
Almena’s attorney, Tony Serra, says he is prepared to fight for his client again, he states, “I’ve got a hang, I’m going to hang it again.” While it is possible that Serra could reach a plea deal on behalf of his client, he is ever defiant, stating “I’m angry. I’m frustrated, but goddammit, we will win next time.” A new trial is not expected until March and will not be decided on until the court’s official October 4th hearing, meaning Almena will remain in custody until then. Harris was released from prison this Thursday afternoon, to his delight, but to the anger of many of the victims’ relatives who feel this rocky trial has failed to deliver justice. Mary Vega, whose son died in the tragedy said, “This wasn’t suppose to happen. I’m just upset, my son and his girlfriend died … I’m not happy about this.”
Defense lawyers for Harris claimed that police officers, firefighters and government officials who had toured the building before the fire never requested changes from Harris or Almena to bring the building up to code. The tragic fire has divided the community in Oakland as many of the victims found the verdict difficult to accept. Mary Alexander, who is representing the victims in a separate civil suit scheduled for May said, “The families are disappointed in the result today,” Alexander continued, “We look forward to proving the case against the city of Oakland. The city knew, the police knew, the firemen knew that this place had people living in it. That they were using it like a cabaret. There were events that were happening.” Cities have taken on new measures since the fire; a painful lesson indeed.
It seems the case is not over, but today’s verdict helps to add some clarity to this turbulent ordeal. So long as the case continues to unfold, the community in Oakland will be divided and will have a difficult time moving on from the tragedy. It should be noted that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse’s lease by transforming it into a living area where up to twenty-five people were housed, and where underground music parties took place regularly.
Photo Credit: Kellie MacDougall