published on June 17, 2019 - 12:37 PM
Written by Associated Press

(AP) — One of two men blamed for a warehouse fire that killed 36 people in the San Francisco Bay Area two years ago will get a chance to testify in court.

Max Harris is scheduled to take the witness in an Oakland courtroom Monday.

Harris, 29, faces involuntary manslaughter charges along with Derick Almena, 49, who is accused of illegally converting the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse into an artist live-work space where a Dec. 2, 2016 fire killed 36 people.

Prosecutors allege that Almena, 49, stuffed the warehouse full of highly flammable furniture, pianos, rugs and other material and failed to provide smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinklers and other required safety equipment. Prosecutors say Harris, 29, helped Almena convert the warehouse, collect rent and schedule concerts.

Both men pleaded no contest to 36 counts of manslaughter last summer, but a judge scuttled the plea deal after victims’ families objected to their proposed sentences as too lenient.

Judge James Cramer said he rejected the deal because he felt Almena did not show remorse.

Harris’ lawyers say he was made a scapegoat for the tragedy.

A fire alarm went off that night but no one heard it, prosecutor say, adding that the warehouse lacked sprinklers to slow the blaze so people had time to escape.

The two defendants are also accused of failing to provide adequate safety equipment, exits and signage.

In his opening statement last month, Harris’ attorney Curtis Briggs sought to distance his client from Almena and raised the possibility of arson as he tried to shift blame to others.

Defense witness Sharon Evans testified June 6 that while the fire raged, she heard a group of men celebrating that no one was going to come out alive.

She said she heard them indicate they set the fire themselves, although most of her testimony wasn’t allowed to be heard by the jury after the prosecution objected that it was hearsay, the East Bay Times reported.

Federal fire officials traced the origin of the fire to a back corner of the warehouse’s ground floor but could not determine what caused the blaze.

The men could face up to 36 years each if convicted on all counts.

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