Suspect in fatal Oakland warehouse fire says he can’t get fair trial
by Paul Elias, The Associate Press
Derick Almena pleaded no contest in the deaths of 36 people, but a plea bargain was rejected by a judge who said Almena didn't show enough remorse for his role in the 2016 fire
OAKLAND, Calif.—A man who saw his agreement with prosecutors rejected by a judge last week after already pleading no contest in the deaths of 36 people in a California warehouse fire said Monday it is now impossible for him to get a fair trial in Oakland.
“How am I going to find a jury that hasn’t heard me say, ‘I’m guilty,”’ Derick Almena told San Francisco television station KGO in a jailhouse interview.
Alameda County Judge James Cramer, substituting for a judge who helped broker the plea deal, said Almena didn’t show enough remorse for his role in the 2016 fire, stunning an Oakland courtroom last Friday when he tossed out the deal.
His lawyer, Tony Serra, said Monday he will seek to move a possible trial to another California county if a new plea deal can’t be arranged. “My client publicly stated his guilt in a case with a large amount of publicity,” Serra said.
Almena last month pleaded no contest to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for his role in the Dec. 2, 2016, fire at the converted Oakland warehouse he called the Ghost Ship.
Almena, 48, made the pleas when he thought he had reached an agreement to serve nine years in prison. Almena rented and illegally converted the warehouse into a residence and entertainment venue. He hired a man named Max Harris to collect rent and help schedule concerts.
The warehouse caught fire during an unlicensed concert on Dec. 2, 2016, killing 36 people. The men were charged after prosecutors said they turned the warehouse into a death trap by cluttering it with highly flammable materials and failing to make it safe.
Harris agreed to a six-year term and pleaded no contest to 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter.
Judge Morris Jacobson, who approved the plea agreements, was unavailable last week to preside at a two-day sentencing hearing to hear grieving families speak of their loss. Cramer, who filled in, stunned prosecutors and defence attorneys alike when he rejected the plea agreement.
After listening to families angrily denouncing the deal as too lenient, Cramer ruled that Almena failed to take adequate responsibility. Cramer cited a 21-page letter Almena wrote to probation officers. He cited passages where Almena said he and his family are also victims because of the notoriety the case has received.
In the interview with KGO, Almena said the judge unfairly cited those passages out of context. “They misquoted me,” he said.
Cramer did say Harris appeared to express genuine remorse.
A hearing is now set for Friday.
Harris’ attorney Tyler White said he’s hopeful that a separate plea deal with the same terms can still be arranged. Serra also said a new deal is possible. Otherwise, a trial date will be scheduled.
David Levine, a University of California, San Francisco law school professor, said Cramer was “not as invested in the deal” as Jacobson.
“That left the door open for him to reject it,” Levine said.
Alameda County district attorney spokeswoman Teresa Drenick declined comment.
Legal experts said the judge’s rejection of the plea agreement was surprising and rare. “It sent ripples through the legal community,” said defence attorney Michael Cardoza, a former prosecutor.
Cardoza said both sides had good reasons to accept the deal. He said that Almena faced a life sentence and prosecutors risked a politically disastrous acquittal.
He also suggested that California judges may be a reluctant to be perceived as too lenient after Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky was recalled from office in June.
Voters recalled Persky after he sentenced former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to six months in jail instead of a longer sentence for a sexual assault conviction.