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Prosecutors seek gag order in Ghost Ship case

Alameda County prosecutors are seeking an order that would ban the Ghost Ship warehouse fire defendants and their attorneys from talking to the news media about the high-profile case.

The District Attorney’s proposed gag order, which technically is called a “protective order,” will be debated at a hearing on Friday morning in front of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson, who recently was assigned to preside over the trial of Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris.

Almena, 48, and Harris, 28, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on Dec. 2, 2016, which killed 36 people.

If the motion by prosecutors Autrey James and David Lim is granted the order would ban Almena, Harris, their attorneys and witnesses and anyone acting on their behalf from talking to the media.

James and Lim claim the gag order is necessary to prevent the defense from tainting the pool of potential jurors for the trial, which is scheduled to begin on April 2.

The prosecution’s motion says “Almena himself has played a part in this effort” because in his writings to the press, his family and his friends “he has admitted to disseminating information to the press knowing it might reach eventual jurors.”

The motion alleges “Almena has repeatedly shared with the media emails, videos and photos given to the defense as part of the discovery process in the apparent hope or belief that selective dissemination of these materials would tell his version of how events leading up to this deadly fire transpired.”

Referring to Almena’s lawyer, Tony Serra, and Harris’ lawyer, Curtis Briggs, Lim and James also say, “Defense counsel have spoken to the press after every court appearance, calling into question the law enforcement investigation, blaming the deaths on government employees with the city of Oakland and Alameda County and other public agencies and calling out society in general for the defendants’ actions in this case.”

Briggs wrote in a brief opposing the motion for a gag order that he believes it is “Alameda County District Attorney’s transparent attempt to hide the ugly truth: that the prosecution of Harris and Almena is wholly lacking in justice and integrity. Fortunately for Harris and Almena the protective order the prosecution seeks is entirely unconstitutional.” Briggs said he thinks the prosecution is mad at him for the comments he made to the news media after the Jan. 2 hearing at which Thompson was appointed, in which he said, “The prosecution of Harris and Almena by Nancy O’Malley’s office is the highest form of institutional corruption, is the highest and most egregious form of scapegoating.”

Briggs wrote, “The very next day, the prosecution, suddenly concerned about a ‘fair trial,’ hastily authored a motion for a protective order.”
At the hearing on Friday, Thompson also is expected to hear arguments on a defense motion asking that the building’s owners and Oakland firefighters and police officers be arrested and prosecuted along with Almena and Harris.

A third motion that may be discussed is a defense request to dismiss the charges against Almena and Harris on the grounds that potentially exonerating evidence was destroyed, lost or altered under the watch of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.

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