Attorney: Man is a scapegoat in deadly California fire

National

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The attorney for one of two men on trial in connection with a fire that killed 36 people at a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse two years ago told the jury in closing arguments Tuesday that his client has been used as a scapegoat and the evidence shows he should be acquitted.

Curtis Briggs, attorney for Max Harris, pointed out that Harris had not been there when Derick Almena signed the lease in November 2013 and that it wasn’t him who threw the dance party the night of the fire in December 2016.Harris, he said, didn’t design the warehouse’s interior, which was packed with rugs, furniture and other flammable material; it wasn’t even his stuff inside — Almena admitted that it was his. Harris didn’t even build the stairs that led to the second floor, where the music show was held, he added.

“But instead, they ask you to convict Max Harris anyway,” Briggs repeated after nearly every example.

“There’s a theme here: No matter what, convict Max Harris,” Briggs said, according to the East Bay Times .

The prosecution has accused Harris, 29, and Almena of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Prosecutors said Almena, 49, rented the warehouse, known as the Ghost Ship, initially for the purpose of building theatrical sets inside, but then he quickly sublet the space to other artists and filled it with highly combustible materials that fueled the fire. Harris is accused of helping Almena convert the warehouse, collect rent and coordinate parties there.

Briggs said that the night of the fire, with smoke still in the air, investigators saw in Harris a “gangly young man with a blue mohawk, dirty and with big earrings.”

“They did not see a young man who had lost seven friends in the fire,” Briggs said.

“What they saw in that moment of sorrow . they saw a reason. They saw the ‘why’ . they saw someone who didn’t fit into the mold, and they pursued that.”

Both defense teams for Harris and Almena have introduced the theory of arson as a potential cause of the fire. No official cause was ever determined by investigators, so arson could not be ruled out.

Briggs even suggested that they didn’t rule out insurance fraud; the warehouse owners had an insurance policy on the warehouse building.

“Because it wasn’t part of their investigation. Because they had their reason — the tall kid with a blue mohawk,” Briggs said, pointing to Harris.

Briggs concluded his closing arguments Tuesday and Almena’s attorney Tony Serra is expected to begin his in the afternoon.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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