Scott Evans Dekraai, the man accused of the largest mass murder in Orange County history, might plead guilty next week to the 2011 killings of eight people in a Seal Beach hair salon, according to a statement made Friday in Orange County Superior Court.
Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s lead public defender, made a vaguely worded statement to Judge Thomas M. Goethals in the Santa Ana courtroom that suggested a guilty plea was in the offing.
Sanders declined further comment.
Such a move would eliminate the need for the planned June 9 trial, leaving only the penalty phase of the prosecution for the shooting spree that left dead Dekraai’s former wife, Michelle, and others around her that Oct. 12 at a salon.
Prosecutors have been seeking the death penalty for Dekraai in court proceedings since the crime occurred.
But the possibility of a death sentence has been thrown into doubt by an unprecedented hearing now under way in which Sanders has accused the Orange County district attorney’s office of running a jailhouse informant system that violated Dekraai’s constitutional rights to a fair trial, due process and counsel.
As a remedy for the alleged misconduct, Sanders is asking Goethals to block the death penalty and to recuse the entire district attorney’s office from prosecuting Dekraai. The state attorney general’s office then would take over the Dekraai prosecution.
Dekraai would receive a life sentence without a possibility of parole if the judge ruled for the defense on that request.
Prosecutors have argued that they have not violated the defendant’s rights and that their conduct was not fatal to fairly prosecuting Dekraai, but they have conceded in the hearing that Sanders has raised valid questions about failures to disclose evidence to such defendants.
Irrespective of any guilty plea, the hearing regarding prosecutorial conduct is expected to continue.
Howard Gundy, a member of the Dekraai prosecution team, told the judge Tuesday that they will not use tape recordings of his comments to a jail house informant in any court proceedings.
The Dekraai tapes — about 130 hours of discussions with the informant — were expected to be used at the penalty phase of the trial. The use of such informants is at the heart of Sanders’ allegations of misconduct by prosecutors and law enforcement officers.
Also that day, Gundy sought to strictly limit the questioning of new witnesses, such as other deputy district attorneys accused by Sanders of alleged improprieties.
But Goethals rejected that argument, allowing Sanders to continue calling witnesses in the hearing that may continue another two weeks.
Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.