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Judge rejects Ghost Ship plea deal after emotional hearing

Angela Ruggiero and David DeBolt, East Bay Times on

Published in News & Features

OAKLAND, Calif. -- In a stunning development, a judge on Friday rejected plea deals for two men held responsible for the deadly Ghost Ship fire, apparently moved by the emotional testimony over two days from the families of the 36 victims.

Unless another plea deal is accepted, the case could go to trial.

Judge James Cramer's decision came after family members met with prosecutors during the lunch break on Friday and said they were not convinced defendants Derick Almena and Max Harris were sincere in apologizing for the tragic Dec. 2, 2016 fire. Many had earlier asked the judge to reject the plea bargain.

"I thought I needed more time but I don't," said Cramer, who earlier was expected to wait a week to decide. "Rather than accepting full responsibility and remorse" Almena deflected responsibility, he said.

Judge Cramer said it was a 30-something page letter Almena wrote in his probation report that Cramer "can't get away from," convincing him of his lack of remorse.

"There are those crippled with hate and ridicule. Those what will never recognize me and my family as a victim. I'm a victim and a witness," Cramer said, reading from Almena's letter.

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The judge said Almena shifted blame to others, and did not acknowledge responsibility in the letter.

The plea bargain had called for Almena to serve nine years and Harris to serve six after pleading no contest to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. With time served and good behavior, each man could have been released within about three years.

Judge Cramer, who seemed to struggle with the decision, at times taking long pauses, said he believed the resolution to Harris was fair, and that Harris expressed remorse. But because the plea deal was a "packaged deal," it meant that by rejecting Almena's deal, he rejected them both.

When the judge said he would reject the plea, some family members cheered, and clapped their hands briefly. The aunt of one of the victims covered her mouth as she gasped and wept.

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