The Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people in December 2016 was not the result of poor electrical wiring but the willful act of two or more arsonists, acclaimed defense attorney Tony Serra told a jury on Wednesday.
The novel theory came as prosecutors and the defense made their opening statements in the trial of Derick Almena and Max Harris. The Oakland Ghost Ship’s founder and creative director, respectively, are each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter as a result of the warehouse-turned-living-art/performance-space fire.
Serra described Almena as “100 percent artist” and “not some despot, cult leader [or] manipulator of the truth.”
“We strongly believe it was arson,” Serra repeated to journalists outside the courtroom. “One witness close by heard popping sounds, like glass breaking, right before the fire, and then he saw people run out the back door. And that suggests Molotov Cocktails. They lit them, and threw them and left.”
Serra is almost as famous for his vow of poverty as his selection of clients as a “lawyer of the damned.” He has been a civil rights advocate and defense attorney for more than 40 years (aside from a time spent in jail as a tax resister). His previous clients include Black Panther leader Huey Newton, Symbionese Liberation Army members Sara Jane Olson and Michael Bortin and an array of crime figures.
Serra’s arson theory was repeated by Curtis Briggs, attorney for Max Harris. “At least 10 people participated in that arson. We have multiple witnesses to prove that,” ABC7 News reports Briggs telling reporters. “That’s going to exonerate Max Harris.”
Prosecutors in their opening statement read through the names of the 36 victims of the Ghost Ship fire, contrasting photos from earlier in the evening to their sudden death as fire engulfed the building.
Almena and Harris had struck a plea arrangement with prosecutors in the Summer of 2018 and pled no contest to reduced charges. Outrage by victims and survivors lead to Judge James Cramer taking the unusual move of rejecting what he called a “slap on the wrist” deal.
With the conclusion of the opening statements, the trial moves forward into the evidentiary stage.