Ghost Ship trial: Defense motion for mistrial denied after jurors replaced

Defense lawyers made oral motions on Monday for a mistrial in the case of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris, apparently because of possible juror misconduct, but a judge denied their motions, according to court records.

Defense lawyers for Almena, 49, and Harris, 29, made their motions during the course of hectic proceedings Monday, when jurors were questioned individually in private and Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson wound up dismissing three jurors and replacing them with alternates. Monday was the 10th day of jury deliberations since the case was submitted to them on July 31 but Thompson’s replacement of the three jurors meant that they had to begin their deliberations from scratch late in the day.

Almena and Harris are each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for a fire at a music party at the 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, which served as an artists’ collective, the night of Dec. 2, 2016. Thompson said at a hearing in open court Tuesday morning that two of the three jurors she dismissed will face contempt charges for allegedly violating her rules about reading materials about the case or talking to people about the case.

Brian Getz, one of Almena’s lawyers, said he objected to Thompson referring to two of the dismissed jurors as “offending” jurors and one of them as a “non-offending” juror. “Our position is that all three were offending jurors and we will state that in a written motion,” Getz said. Getz later elaborated that he believes the juror that Thompson described as “non-offending” engaged in misconduct by failing to report the alleged misconduct of the other two dismissed jurors.

Minutes of closed hearings that Thompson held on Monday indicate that Harris’ lawyer Curtis Briggs made an oral motion for a mistrial at 12:10 p.m. and Almena’s lead attorney Tony Serra made an oral motion for a mistrial at 1:33 p.m., but Thompson denied their motions at 2:22 p.m. The minutes indicate that Serra made another oral motion for a mistrial at 2:47 p.m. but Thompson also denied that motion.

Tensions in the high-profile case remain high and Thompson told the attorneys in the case on Tuesday morning that they should conduct themselves in a professional manner. “The court will not tolerate name-calling and improper gestures and physical manifestations,” she said. “I know this is a very emotional case that brings out the passion of all parties,” Thompson said, but she warned the attorneys not to “cross the line” with improper comments and actions.

The jurors’ deliberating schedule remains in flux, as some of the alternate jurors who were pressed into action on Monday have already made work and travel plans in September, with one juror saying they wouldn’t be available between Sept. 9 and Oct. 6. Jurors already are scheduled to begin a long break on Thursday and not return until Sept. 3, the day after Labor Day. Thompson said she will consider jurors’ requests for days off if they have receipts for pre-paid and non-refundable travel plans.

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