What’s next in Ghost Ship saga: Defendant Derick Almena “should be scared” of retrial after 10 jurors voted he was guilty, legal expert says

OAKLAND — Ghost Ship fire defendant Derick Almena “has every reason to be scared” of a possible retrial after 10 jurors voted he was guilty of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, a legal expert said Thursday.
Alameda County prosecutors did not say Thursday whether they will try again with another jury or offer Almena, 49, a plea deal. But it could be easier to convict Almena now that his co-defendant, Max Harris, has been acquitted, and they can put their full concentration on one person, said Stanford Law School Professor Robert Weisberg, who has followed the four-month trial.
“The acquittal of Harris shows that responsibility (for the death of 36 people in the 2016 fire) was defused,” Weisberg said. Jurors couldn’t “figure out who was in charge” of artists’ collective.
If Almena were to be tried alone, jurors potentially could focus blame only on him, Weisberg said. With 10 jurors voting to convict Almena, a retrial “could make sense. You have to consider how the strategy would change without Harris.”
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley was in Southern California and was not available to speak after the verdict, her staff said. Another court date has been scheduled for Oct. 4, but Chief Deputy D.A. Kevin Dunleavy was noncommittal about what may happen next.
“Our hearts have always been with the families,” he said. The long trial and verdict were “extremely difficult for the families.”
Almena’s lead attorney, Tony Serra, seemed to dismiss any notion of making a deal after Judge Trina Thompson declared a mistrial.
“I understood the prospect that it would hang, but not by two,” Serra said outside of court. “That didn’t justify from my perspective the reasonable doubt that’s in this case. I’m pained, I’m anguished, I’m frustrated, but God dammit we will win next time.”
Weisberg said that while he sees the likelihood of O’Malley wanting a retrial, she should be prepared for a battle.
He said there are still other individuals, including city employees, who Serra could blame for the fire and how it spread quickly through the warehouse that was packed with wood and trapped many of the victims on the second floor.
“There are so many people at fault,” he said. Among them may be warehouse owner Chor Ng, who hasn’t been charged in the case, a decision that Weisberg said remains “mystifying.”
O’Malley never has fully explained why Ng, or family members who acted as her agents in renting the warehouse to Almena, was not charged. Weisberg said he only assumes O’Malley, who he said “runs a very professional office,” has solid reasons.
“It’s a problem,” he said of the lack of charges against the building owner. “Why pick on Almena. It’s almost as if everyone was responsible so no one was responsible.”
Weisberg said he can’t see O’Malley charging Ng now.
It would also be very difficult to explain why she was being charged after Harris’ aquittal and the Almena mistrial and could be seen as a “sleazy move” by a new jury, Weisberg said.
Staff writer Angela Ruggiero contributed to this story.

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