SAN FRANCISCO – The grieving families of 36 people to life in Northern California, 2016 warehouse fire that helped to scuttle a plea bargain now that their demand for a jury trial granted.
After hearing two days of emotional testimony last week, Judge James Cramer said that he could not agree to a plea bargain agreed between the Alameda County district attorney’s office and attorneys for Derick Almena, and Max Harris, each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
On Thursday, The Associated Press obtained a letter to Attorney Nancy O’malley sent Cramer informing him that she was cutting off the talks with the lawyers of the defense and that the prosecutors would not negotiate a plea deal with Almena or Harris. She also asked for Cramer for the setting of a trial date as soon as possible.
Lawyers for Almena, and Harris said there’s a possibility that they could work out a settlement with Cramer despite the district attorney’s attitude. But they said, it is more likely that the two defendants to stand trial.
Almena and Harris are scheduled to appear in court on Friday for the first time since Cramer scuttled the plea deal, stating Almena is the lack of repentance. A first date could be planned.
O’malley said the judge in a letter she sent to the court on Tuesday that the families of the declaration of the previous week led to her decision to stop settlement negotiations.
Many of the family members also demanded that the two men stand trial, so they could learn more about the how and why their loved ones died. The researchers are not able to find the cause of the Dec. 2, 2016 fire.
O’malley said, “with the words heard, and seen the pain that deeply affected” her convinced that the two should be testing instead of solving their cases with a plea deal.
“The grief of the families of the pain and shock of the community, by the senseless and tragic death of 36 persons caused by a fire that roared by the warehouse is so strong and deep today as it was in December 2016,” O’malley wrote. “These people lost their lives in the hands of the two suspects.”
Almena rented from the Oakland warehouse and illegally converted into an underground live-work space for artists and a venue called the Ghost Ship. Almena hired Harris to help manage the facility by collecting rent, booking concerts, among other duties.
They are the only people who criminal charges for the deadliest structure fire since 100 people died in a Rhode Island nightclub fire in 2003.
The settlement called for Almena to accept a term of imprisonment of nine years, and Harris to receive a term of six years. Both men probably would have been released after serving half of their terms, with time off for good behavior.
The proposed deal had been brokered by a different judge who accepted the men are no-match funds in July and was expected to uphold the agreement when the couple appeared in court last week for the formal sentencing.
But that the judge was unavailable, and Cramer was assigned to preside over the two-day hearing.
If it ended, Cramer said Almena failed to express regret and that he would not abide by the plea deal. Cramer mentions a letter Almena wrote probation officials where Almena said that he and his family are also victims of the fire.
In a jailhouse interview with KGO-7 on Tuesday, Almena said the judge quoted “out of context” of a passage of a 21-page letter.
“If you have something out of context you can twist it around and it looks like it about me,” he said. “This ruling is about everything. I have remorseful on this since the time that this happened.”
Cramer said that he believed Harris was really remorseful and that the “deal is fair.” But since the plea bargain was a package deal, he said that he had no other choice than to reject Harris proposed sentence.
Harris’ lawyer, Tyler Smith, said that he hopes that Cramer will ultimately decide the sentence Harris to six years in prison, despite new objections in the district attorney’s letter to the judge.
O’malley told the court that she is now against the six year prison sentence because of the ‘victims’ families disagree”.
Smith and Almena lawyer, Brian Getz, both said that they will try to move the process to another California county, for both men admitted their guilt before the plea deal was rejected, developments widely known in the region.
Each man pleaded no contest to 36 different times in the last month and both incriminating statements last week during the sentencing hearing, Almena say: “I’m guilty” several times.
“All of that have been reported,” Smith has said.
Getz said that calls for a change of location comes with risks, and the trial could be moved to a politically conservative court of the place where the tattoo artists’ appearance and opinions could negatively influence a jury. But Getz said that it appears the lawyer have no alternative.
“I do not think that it is possible for Derick to a fair trial in Oakland,” Getz said.