The criminal manslaughter trial of Ghost Ship tenants Derick Almena and Max Harris started Tuesday, with both men facing 36 counts, one for each of the victims killed in the deadly 2016 Oakland warehouse fire. While both Almena and Harris have different attorneys, both lawyers are centering their defense on the same shocking claim — that the fire was in fact started by a group of seven arsonists who torched the place on purpose and then surreptitiously escaped the scene.
As SFBay points out, this is a criminal trial, so the defense only needs to prove a reasonable degree of doubt around Alemena and Harris’ guilt. And given that the cause of the fire is technically still undetermined, that does provide their defense with an opening.
“One witness close by heard popping sounds, like glass breaking, right before the fire and then he saw people run out the back door,” Almena’s attorney Tony Serra claimed outside the courthouse, according to KPIX. “That suggests that Molotov cocktails, or at least bottles of gasoline, were utilized in the arson.”
Harris’ attorney Curtis Briggs says the account of these mystery men will be confirmed by another witness, who claims she saw a group of men at a nearby taco truck shortly afterward saying, “The way we put the wood there, they’re never getting out.”
According to the East Bay Times, a third additional witness “is expected to testify that he saw the men in the northwest corner of the building where the fire originated, and he did not recognize them.”
The prosecution, which will call its first witnesses Monday, argues that Almena and Harris knew that the place was illegal to use residentially, and showed total disregard for fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, or any basic safety measures.
In another surprise move, one of the jurors was removed Tuesday and will be replaced when the trial resumes Monday. The Times reports that “the judge warned the courtroom that someone had attempted to communicate with a juror,” and added that the trial would be closed to media and to the public if she learned of any further attempts to communicate with jurors.