Ghost Ship Attorney on His Client’s Acquittal, Defending One of ‘the Most Hated People in America’

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Curtis Briggs says while representing Max Harris against 36 counts of manslaughter there was a "moral imperative" to get the victims' families some answers.

After 29 months in jail, a jury in Oakland, California, acquitted Max Harris of 36 counts of negligent involuntary manslaughter on Sept. 5 stemming from the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire. Prosecutors had charged him for criminal negligence alongside Derick Almena, who were both tenants of the warehouse, for illegally converting the building into a residence for artists and holding unpermitted events. In the end, Harris was cleared of all charges and Almena was neither convicted nor acquitted due to a hung jury that deliberated for three weeks.

The Ghost Ship warehouse, which was not regulated for residential or entertainment use, had been in use as an artist collective and regularly held unpermitted concerts. During a show in December 2016, a fire broke out, taking the lives of 36 people after unsafe conditions made it impossible to exit the building.

“It was probably about 10 miles away from where I was,” Harris' attorney, Curtis Briggs of Seville Briggs, tells Billboard of first hearing news of the devastating fire. “That smoke was slowly bellowing in the air. It was black and ominous. I had a feeling at that point that I had some connection to it. I can’t explain it other than it felt like intuition.”

In June 2017, Briggs took on Harris’s case pro-bono and has spent the past two years helping the defendant disprove the daunting 36 counts against him. Billboard spoke with Briggs to discuss the emotional case and where it goes from here.

What was it like defending someone with 36 counts against them?

It made Derick Almena and Max Harris some of the most hated people in America, just by the amount of people who died. Every person involved, especially the jurors, want to provide justice and the only people they were served up on a silver platter were Derrick and Max. It was terrifying to have to overcome that type of prejudice in the eyes of the public. The way I think I was able to overcome it with Max was through the New York Times Magazine article that was a profile piece on him. I thought that helped us a lot.

Was it part of your defense strategy to point a finger at the city of Oakland and the landowners?

The city of Oakland had been cited by a civil grand jury twice in 2013, a couple years before the fire. A civil grand jury came in and looked at their building department and fire inspection department and just roasted them. They said you guys are completely incompetent, lack training, lack management, lack staff and resources. You guys aren’t doing your job and one of the things that was important was that at the time of the fire there were 4,000 commercial warehouses in Oakland that were going without inspection every year that were required to be inspected. The city was not competent in executing their duties.  

The other aspect is that the owners were not charged with a crime and the owners were a huge component of our defense because without the owners, this never would have happened because there wouldn’t have been a place. The owners made a lot of money off of these tenants at the Ghost Ship. They had electrical problems in all their buildings on that block. They hired janky contractors to do the work to save money on all of those units, not just the Ghost Ship warehouse. It was always difficult for us to broaden the lens to the context and to the other people involved.

What was the challenge defending Harris against involuntary manslaughter that put the burden on proving negligence rather than intent?

Max’s failure to recognize a risk, was that reasonable? That’s the way I interpret the law. That’s what we presented at trial.

Number one, the other tenants at the Ghost Ship warehouse never thought there was a risk. Number two, none of the city officials ever thought there was a risk because they were in there. Number three, the partygoers -- who were intelligent people -- didn’t appreciate a risk. Number four, the owners didn’t appreciate a risk. I think it gave us the moral leverage because people expect public safety personnel, especially the fire department that was in charge of the inspection, to do their job competently. Max Harris has a bachelor’s degree in arts and no safety training whatsoever.

Was it difficult to have the families of 36 victims watching over this trial?

It was a moral imperative to get these families some answers. We did several things during the trial that weren’t necessarily great for our defense, they were probably riskier than anything. At some point we had nothing to lose by allowing the opportunity for families to hear from the firefighters, fire marshals and police officers questioned about their actions. The families have received no answers from any other venue. They never had the opportunity.

What has been the families’ reactions to the verdicts?

I was actually contacted by several family members who expressed their support for me personally and professionally. They didn’t say one way or another their feelings regarding Max, but they expressed appreciation for how I conducted and how my team conducted itself during trial, which was extremely touching to me. It is so hard to defend Max without causing the families undo pain. That was really Max’s imperative the whole time.

There are other family members that I have seen in the news that are very frustrated and angry. It is very hard to watch them experience that. It’s harder for them who have gone through so much pain. There is no right answer here.

What would you say to those families after the verdict?

I’m sorry that this legal system is so limited in offering them justice. As a parent who lost a child, I never got over that. I can’t imagine what it is like to lose a 20- or 25-year-old child who was beautiful and bright and had nothing but great things to accomplish in life. And to lose them in such a horrible way. That’s so devastating and they are in my prayers.

Where does Harris go after this?

I don’t know. Right now he is on sensory overload. He has been behind gray walls in an orange jumpsuit for 29 months. Now that he is outside, he is trying to take it slow and reconnect with some people.

What do you think will happen with Almena since the jury was hung?

I have my educated guess. The District Attorney is going to posture as if they’re going to retry the case. They are probably hoping that he will plea out for something that doesn’t make them look bad. That’s probably how that is going to go, but if the DA really wants to double down on a really bad hand, they will retry him and spend a couple million dollars of taxpayer money. Potentially, Derrick could do a lot better without Max in the courtroom because Max makes anybody look bad because Max is so good.