District Attorney Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder was called to the witness stand Thursday in the pretrial of Orange County’s largest ever mass murder, part of a public defender’s effort to disqualify county prosecutors from the case.
Scott Evans Dekraai faces charges of gunning down eight people, including his ex-wife, at a Seal Beach hair salon in 2011. He has admitted to the shooting, and the primary question is whether he will face the death penalty.
Scott Sanders, the lead public defender in the case, is seeking to remove both the death penalty consideration and county prosecutors from the case. In a more than 500-page motion, Sanders has alleged that prosecutors and law enforcement agencies violated the constitutional rights of Dekraai and other criminal defendants by operating a secret network of informants inside the county jails.
In addition to those allegations, Sanders’ line of questioning Thursday attempted to show that public statements by Schroeder, who is the DA's chief spokeswoman, have damaged Dekraai's chances of a fair trial by inflaming jurors’ passions against the defense attorneys.
If Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals rules in favor of the public defenders, the state attorney general’s office would be called in to prosecute Dekraai.
Schroeder appeared in court on crutches, high heels and a bandaged knee, the result of a stem cell injection on Tuesday, she told a Voice of OC reporter.
Upon taking the stand, Schroeder answered Sanders' questions regarding whether she told the victims’ families and a news reporter that the defense was intentionally trying to delay the case and drag out court proceedings for as long as possible.
Sanders said such statements would have “increased the anger” and were “disparaging” toward the defense.
Schroeder denied her statements were part of a conscious effort to discredit the defense.
“It wasn’t meant to be disparaging to the defense, it was meant to share the frustrations of crime victims, not just on this case, and also the public,” Schroeder said, adding that a “case of this importance and magnitude would be delayed, and it would be delayed by you.”
Sanders asked if Schroeder is “careful with her words.”
“I try to be,” Schroeder replied.
Sanders asked — and Schroeder answered in the affirmative — whether defense attorneys were using delay tactics that were intended solely for the purpose of getting more time.
When asked what those delay tactics were, Schroeder, who has tried cases as a prosecutor, said that they included motions for continuance.
Sanders then challenged Schroeder's experience handling big cases and attempted to show that Schroeder has a shallow level of knowledge regarding the defense’s court filings and preparation work for death penalty trials.
Schroeder said she had prosecuted dozens of cases but no felony cases. She speculated that background work required of the defense attorneys would include interviews and legal research.
Sanders then asked Schroeder whether she had experience in doing background work for legal cases from either the defense or prosecution side.
“Well, I have observed my colleagues and been with them on several cases and seen how hard they work on different cases. I’ve seen the types of work they do, whether it’s investigative, the amount of hours they’ve put in. I know that takes a lot of time,” Schroeder said.
Sanders at various times pressed Schroeder on her intentions in making public statements, which he said included painting a portrait of defense attorneys as “lazy” and “dirty scoundrel lawyers not caring about their victims,” who “just hang out all day.”
“I believe that your loyalties are defending your client and you don’t care about the victims. … I think your interest in your client overrides any feelings you may have,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder and Sanders also sparred over the pace of the trial.
“It’s not moving quickly enough,” Schroeder said.
“It’s not moving quickly enough for you, right?” replied Sanders.
Said Schroeder: “It’s not moving quickly enough for the victims, … and frankly it’s not moving quickly enough for the public. They want to heal.”
Sanders pressed Shcroeder on her knowledge of the defense’s motion to recuse the district attorney’s office from the case and whether she looked into allegations of misconduct.
Schroeder acknowledged not having read the defense’s motions in the case, saying she had discussions about them with lead prosecutor Dan Wagner and knew they contained allegations of a “vast conspiracy.”
Sanders asked what Schroeder included in her analysis regarding whether the allegations in the defense’s motions were true. She said that she relied on Wagner’s word and her sense that defense attorneys commonly try to derail cases with similar tactics.
“I spoke with Mr. Wagner as to the merits of your case and what the allegations were, and Mr. Wagner is probably one of the best prosecutors in the office, and he didn’t believe your motion had merit,” Schroeder said.
Last month, Wagner acknowledged in testimony that the DA's office didn’t properly disclose evidence to five men convicted of murder and other serious offenses, raising the possibility of new trials for the inmates.
“From your perspective, lawyers in your office do not engage in unethical behavior?” Sanders asked Schroeder.
“I don’t think so for the most part,” Schroeder said, adding that over the course of history there were certain individuals who acted unethically, but the current prosecutions team “does the right thing over and over again, because it was right.”
“I take his word to the bank,” Schroeder said of Wagner.
Sanders asked whether Wagner told her that the defense allegations had merit. Schroeder replied that the conversations were limited, not specific, but they possibly discussed the subject.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Howard Gundy cross-examined and asked Schroeder whether it was true that the defense had made filings under seal, therefore not public, and whether the defense could have made statements to the media explaining the rationale behind their motions.
Schroeder answered yes to these questions, and in response to Sanders’ apparent disbelief, said that she would have called newspapers for a correction if she had knowledge of Sanders’ sealed motion.
Schroeder acknowledged to Gundy that despite her chief of staff title, Wagner doesn’t report to her and she isn't involved in motions filed, tactics of the prosecution or any aspect of the litigation.
“All the decisions are made by the trial attorneys, their supervisor, the DA. I may have opinions, but I don’t have any power over them or make decisions,” she said.
Reporter Rex Dalton contributed to this report.