A jury on Thursday acquitted one man of involuntary manslaughter but could not reach a verdict for the leader of an artists' commune accused of turning an Oakland warehouse into a cluttered maze that trapped 36 partygoers during a fast-moving fire. Jurors found Max Harris, 29, not guilty but said they could not unanimously agree on whether to convict or acquit Derick Almena, 49, of involuntary manslaughter after deliberating since Aug. 26. The decisions followed an emotional three-month trial in which family and friends of the victims packed the courtroom. "Jurors are hopelessly deadlocked. I must declare a mistrial," Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson said, the AP reports, sobs and gasps erupting from the section where families of the victims were seated.
The December 2016 fire broke out during an electronic music party at a warehouse called the Ghost Ship. The building was packed with furniture, extension cords and other flammable material, but had only two exits and no smoke detectors, fire alarms or sprinklers, prosecutors say. Many of the victims were young people trapped on the illegally constructed second floor. Setbacks riddled the criminal case. Almena and Harris were to be sentenced last year to nine and six years in prison, respectively, after pleading no contest to manslaughter. But a judge threw out their pleas after victims' families objected to the sentences as too lenient. Last month, Thompson booted three jurors for misconduct and ordered the new jury to restart deliberations. The prosecutor said the men didn't obtain permits because they didn't want inspections and violated the fire code by refusing to install safety devices. Almena, 49, was the master tenant and Harris, 29, acted like a manager by collecting rent and settling household disputes, the prosecutor said. (The warehouse was a mess of wiring.)