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Ghost Ship Fire Defense Tries To Stop Victim's Mom From Testifying

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- An attorney for Ghost Ship warehouse creative director Max Harris has filed a motion asking a judge not to allow the prosecution's first witness -- the mother of victim Nicole Siegrist -- to testify in the trial for the deadly fire at the warehouse in Oakland in 2016.

Harris, 29, and Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena, 49, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire during a illegal music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on the night of Dec. 2, 2016. It was the deadliest fire in Oakland history and in the United States since 2003.

Alameda County prosecutors and lawyers for Harris and Almena presented their opening statements in the high-profile case on Tuesday and Wednesday and testimony was scheduled to begin on Monday.

Prosecutor Casey Bates told Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson at the end of Wednesday's session that the first witness he plans to call to the stand is Carol Cidlik, Siegrist's mother.

Bates said in his opening statement that at 11:23 p.m. the night of the fire, Siegrist sent a text message to her mother saying, "I'm going to die."

Tyler Smith, one of two lawyers for Harris, wrote in his motion, "The testimony of Ms. Cidlik is inadmissible because it does not tend to prove or disprove any fact that is in question" in the trial.

Smith said, "The danger of undue prejudice (against Harris and Almena in jurors' minds) is extremely high and vastly outweighs any probative value that Ms. Cidlik's testimony might provide."

The defense attorney wrote, "The fact that they (the prosecution) want to call Ms. Cidlik as their very first witness betrays their true motive of having her testify: they wish to use a grieving mother's testimony to tug at the jurors' heartstrings in the hopes that jurors will look at Mr. Harris and Mr. Almena to seek retribution for Ms. Cidlik's heartbreak."

Smith also asked Judge Thompson not to allow fire survivor Samuel Maxwell to testify.

Smith said Maxwell was in a coma for five weeks after the fire, spent four more months in the hospital, is now confined to a wheelchair, requires care around the clock and relies on his mother to interpret what he is saying. Maxwell is scheduled to testify later this month.

Bates said in his opening statement that Almena and Harris are criminally liable for the fire because there was no time and no way for the people at the party to escape since the warehouse didn't have important safeguards, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and exit sign

A jury of nine women and three men will determine Almena and Harris' fate.

Thompson believes prosecutors may finish presenting their case by late May, at which time the defense would begin presenting its case.

She loosely estimates that the trial will take a total of several months but in case it lasts longer than that she has already scheduled breaks in the case in late August and in October to accommodate the schedules of the parties in the case.

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