The Ghost Ship jury was headed into its 10th day of deliberations when juror Maury Mossman typed up a note he was hesitant to deliver.
Tensions over the deadly Oakland warehouse fire were already high. For days, one juror had announced her vote to acquit one defendant, Derick Almena, while others were set on finding him guilty of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. And just before jurors broke for a three-day weekend on Aug. 15, Mossman witnessed what he believed were two instances of juror misconduct: One juror admitted to speaking about the case with a friend, and another had attempted to sway the vote of a third juror.
He came to a decision over the weekend and returned to the jury room with a letter to the judge folded in his pocket, describing the allegations. He told himself that if it appeared that juror No. 7, the foreperson, planned to report the misconduct, he would drop it.
But on the following Monday morning, “I kind of made eyes with No. 7, and there was nothing,” Mossman said. “I pulled this (note) out of my pocket, and I handed it to the bailiff.”
The allegations threatened to derail the entire Ghost Ship trial nearly three years after 36 people were killed at an electronic music party in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. But on Thursday, the four-month criminal trial of Almena and co-defendant Max Harris came to a dramatic finale, when a rejiggered jury acquitted Harris on all charges but announced it was deadlocked on Almena. Both faced charges of involuntary manslaughter for every person killed in the Dec. 2, 2016, inferno.
Hung juries are rare, accounting for just 6% of cases in jury trials, according to a 2003 report by the National Center for State Courts. And it’s almost unheard of for a judge to dismiss three jurors at once.
The not guilty verdict and mistrial came more than a month after the case was handed to the jury on July 31, and weeks after Mossman’s note, which led to Judge Trina Thompson’s stunning decision to remove three jurors for misconduct. Deliberations started from scratch with alternates.
Details of jury misconduct in the Ghost Ship trial were originally shielded by a gag order, and jurors were forbidden to discuss the case with anyone until after it ended. So, for the month of August, the extraordinary deliberations behind one of the Bay Area’s biggest cases in years remained closely guarded from the public eye.
Three jurors interviewed by The Chronicle provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the emotional deliberations that ultimately landed at least two jurors in contempt proceedings and could lead to another months-long criminal trial for Almena.
“We were all pretty banged up,” said Mossman, who served as jury foreman after the three jurors were dismissed and replaced by alternates.
Mossman, one of 10 jurors who voted to convict Almena, said on Monday he didn’t feel he could face the victims’ families.
“We were basically letting the guy go,” he said. “We were failing to convict him.”
The specter of a mistrial began to take shape in early August after the instructions were sorted out, Mossman said. On day 3 or 4 of deliberations, the jurors started indicating where they leaned.
“I was worried from that moment on it would hang,” Mossman said.
As the jurors worked their way through a matrix of charges, juror No. 10 announced that she was convinced others were at fault, Mossman said. She believed the landlords, the Ng family, held more responsibility for the fire.
“We heard that verbatim 50 times, until I was sick of hearing it,” Mossman said.
Other jurors tried to reason with juror No. 10, but it was “like pulling a bone out of a pit bull’s mouth,” Mossman said.
The comment that triggered misconduct proceedings was almost a non sequitur, Mossman said. The jurors had just voted on whether the defendants installed fire alarms on the exterior of the building. Most of the jury agreed the topic wasn’t worth a debate because the fire started inside the warehouse.
As deliberations wound down on Aug. 15, juror No. 4 said she had discussed the case with some firefighter friends, according to Mossman. The friend told juror No. 4 that fire investigators who had visited the Ghost Ship more than two years before the fire should have noticed there was no exterior alarm, prompting an investigation.
The comment stunned the rest of the jurors, who had been warned several times by Judge Thompson never to discuss the case outside the jury room.
“There were a lot of sharp looks around the room,” said Nemo Baker, a juror who heard the comment. “Like, ‘You did what?’”
Right after juror No. 4’s comment, the woman who had resisted calls to find Almena guilty announced that the comment had swayed one of her votes.
“I said to myself at that moment, ‘I think this should probably be reported,’” Mossman said.
Deliberations let out that day at 4 p.m., and Mossman shared a tense elevator ride with a few colleagues, including juror No. 1, who made a comment that further solidified Mossman’s decision. Mossman recalled her saying she had received a text message from juror No. 3: “I grew up homeless and you need to change your vote,” the text apparently read.
“And then I thought to myself, that’s definitely got to be reported,” he said.
About 20 minutes after handing his note to the bailiff, Mossman was called down to the courtroom. He was asked for more details about the allegations and whether he could remain impartial. Mossman said he could, and Thompson began calling in other jurors one by one.
Shortly after lunch, the bailiff returned to the room and instructed jurors 1, 3 and 4 to gather their belongings.
A hearing on the juror misconduct allegations is scheduled for Oct. 4, the same day as a hearing to see whether Almena will be retried.
Alternate juror Millard Billings was at Costco on the afternoon of Aug. 19, when he received a call to get to court in 30 minutes.
Billings assumed he was being invited to hear the verdict, and said he wasn’t interested.
“They said, ‘No, you have to come,’” Billings said. Within hours, Billings and two other alternate jurors were on the panel.
The second round of deliberations began efficiently, but the two women who favored acquitting Almena refused to be swayed. Juror No. 5, who also voted not guilty, believed that Almena’s actions were not criminally negligent. She reasoned that she wouldn’t have known how to get a permit or bring the building up to code, Mossman said.
After the verdict and mistrial were announced, many jurors broke down in tears upon returning to the jury room. They couldn’t help but see the anguish of victims’ parents, who sobbed upon learning there would be no convictions.
“Remember, as jurors, you weren’t allowed to talk to anyone, or each other, (about the case) for five months,” Billings said. “Finally, we let go.”
- "Absolutely 100 Percent Not Guilty": 25 Bizarre Things You Forgot About the O.J. Simpson Murder Trial
- Dismembered body of ‘wife’ found in killer Dr Crippen’s cellar was MALE & may have been planted by cops, says expert
- What Will Happen to The Trump Toadies?
Ghost Ship trial: Inside the turbulent jury deliberations that led to dismissals, acquittal, deadlock have 1251 words, post on www.sfchronicle.com at September 11, 2019. This is cached page on Law Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.