OAKLAND, California. – A man who saw that his agreement with prosecutors was rejected by a judge last week after pleading no contest in the death of 36 people in a California warehouse fire said Monday it is now impossible for him to receive a fair trial in Oakland.
“How am I going to find a jury that has not heard of me, ‘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 not enough remorse for his role in 2016, a fire, a beautiful Oakland in the courtroom last Friday, when he threw away the deal.
His lawyer, Tony Serra, said Monday he will attempt to move a process to another California county, as a new means deal can’t be arranged. “My client publicly declared 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 of the resources when he thought he had 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 the collection of rent and assistance for the planning of the concerts.
The warehouse caught fire during an unlicensed concert on Dec. 2, 2016, the killing of 36 persons. The men were charged after prosecutors said they turned the warehouse into a death trap by cluttering with flammable substances and failing to make it safe.
Harris agreed for a term of six years and pleaded no contest to 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter.
Judge Morris Jacobson, who approved the plea agreements was not available in the last week for a two-day sentencing hearing to hear the grieving families speak of their loss. Cramer, who filled in, stunned prosecutors and defense attorneys alike when he rejected the plea agreement.
After listening to families angrily denouncing the deal as too lenient, Cramer considered that Almena failed to take adequate responsibility. Cramer cites a 21-page letter, Almena wrote social workers. He quoted passages where Almena said that he and his family are also victims because of the publicity the case has received.
In the interview with KGO, Almena said the judge incorrectly cited those passages in the context. “They misquoted me,” he said.
Cramer said Harris appeared to express genuine remorse.
A hearing is now scheduled for Friday.
Harris’ lawyer Tyler White said he is hopeful that a separate plea deal with the same conditions can still be arranged. Serra also said a new deal is possible. Otherwise, a hearing will be scheduled.
David Levine, the University of California, San Francisco law school professor, said Cramer was “not as invested in the deal, such as Jacobson.
“That left the door open for him to reject it,” Levine said.
Alameda County district attorney spokeswoman Teresa Drenick declined to comment.
Legal experts say the court’s rejection of the request, agreement was surprising, and rare. “It sent ripples through the legal community,” said attorney Michael Cardoza, a former prosecutor.
Cardoza said both sides had good reasons to accept the deal. He said that Almena faced with a life sentence, and prosecutors risked a politically disastrous acquittal.
He also suggested that California judges may be reluctant to be seen as too lenient after Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky was recalled from office in June.
The voters called Persky, after he sentenced a former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to six months in prison instead of a longer sentence for a sexual assault conviction.