OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- The defense lawyer for Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena on Wednesday repeated allegations that the fire at the warehouse in Oakland in 2016 was an act of arson that Almena couldn't have prevented and asked jurors to find him not guilty.
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In his opening statement in the trial of Almena, 49, and creative director Max Harris, 29, on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, defense lawyer Tony Serra said, "This was an arson fire and he [Almena] had done everything possible to make it safe."
"My client is not some despot, cult leader, manipulator of the truth," Serra stated.
Harris' lawyer Curtis Briggs made the same assertion in his opening statement on Tuesday that the fire was an act of arson that Harris and Almena couldn't have prevented.
Briggs said witnesses heard popping sounds and glass breaking and witness Sharon Evans told investigators she saw seven to 10 Latino males walk by the warehouse while it was burning and heard one of them say, "The way we put that wood in there they'll never come out."
Serra and Briggs suggested that the men may have been hired by Omar Vega, the owner of an auto body repair shop adjacent to the warehouse who they said had feuded with Almena over electrical issues and other problems.
Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Casey Bates said in his opening statement Tuesday 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 signs.
Bates also said Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse's lease by turning it into a living space and hosting underground music parties there.
But Serra said on Wednesday that alleged arson "was a superceding cause [of the fire] and you can't blame my client."
He said, "Code violations had nothing to do with the arson fire."
Serra told jurors, "The heart of Mr. Almena is an artist and he's not motivated by money but instead by aesthetics and beauty."
He said, "The Ghost Ship was not a fire trap. It was something beautiful and aesthetic and was not unsafe."
Serra also said Almena thought there weren't any significant safety issues at the warehouse because numerous police, fire and child protective services officials had visited the building and none of them had told him to make improvements.
"No one came to him in any official capacity to tell him what he was doing was improper and fire danger," Serra said.
There were issues with jurors for the second straight day on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson, who is presiding over the trial, said "It has come to my attention that individuals have made attempts to communicate with seated jurors" and threatened to close the trial to the media and the public if there are further attempts to communicate with jurors.
At the beginning of the court session on Wednesday, Thompson said one of the jurors in the case has been removed but didn't give a reason and told the remaining jurors "don't speculate why."
At the end of Wednesday's session, Thompson said a juror in the trial, which is expected to be lengthy, has already asked to be excused for hardship reasons but Thompson said she would deny the juror's request.
Testimony in the trial won't begin until Monday because Thompson has jury duty on Thursday.
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