A Superior Court judge ruled Monday that the Orange County District Attorney's Office "did engage in misconduct" in its prosecution of convicted mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai, but the actions were not egregious enough to remove prosecutors from the case and bar the death penalty.
The ruling, by Judge Thomas M. Goethals in his Santa Ana courtroom, ended an unprecedented six-month hearing on a motion by Dekraai's public defenders alleging a vast jailhouse informant network run by prosecutors that violated the constitutional rights of Dekraai and other defendants.
Though he did not rule as the public defender's had asked, Goethals made his displeasure with prosecutors clear in his 12-page opinion.
"The events associated with the current hearing do not constitute the District Attorney’s finest hour,” he wrote.
As a sanction against prosecutors, Goethals ruled that no statements by the defendant to jailhouse informants can be used in the coming penalty phase of the trial of Dekraai -- who in 2011 gunned down his ex-wife and seven other people a Seal Beach beauty salon, Orange County’s largest-ever mass murder.
During the hearing, "many of the witnesses...were credibility challenged," Goethals wrote. "These witnesses include current and former prosecutors, as well as current and former sworn peace officers. Some perhaps suffered from a failure of recollection. Others undoubtedly lied.”
(Click here to read the full ruling.)
At a press conference after the ruling, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas acknowledged that mistakes and failures occurred, but prosecutors now would focus on seeking the death penalty to avenge the “horrendous” crime.
He doubted his staff lied, and repeated a refrain that high-caseloads and work schedules contributed to most of the issues the judge raised in his ruling.
Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s lead public defender, credited Goethals for identifying the misconduct but said the judge should have gone much further.
“This was incredibly concerning for the justice system here," Sanders said. "There is no good reason to have faith things will change in Orange County.”
Dressed in the jail-issue, orange overalls, the 44-year-old Dekraai showed no emotion when the judge read portions of his written ruling.
A pretrial hearing on the penalty phase of the trial will be held Sept. 12. That trial is expected to take place sometime next year.
The families of the deceased are split over whether the death penalty should be sought.
Bethany Webb -- whose stylist sister, Laura Webb Elody, was killed, and their mother [Hattie Stretz] wounded -- said she wanted a life sentence without possibility of parole; to deny Dekraai the publicity and fame she believes he sought for killing so many people.
“He wanted to be famous with pictures of his face everywhere,” said Webb, noting the coming penalty trial, a verdict and likely appeals will only further that. “That’s not what I want.”
But Paul Caouette -- a Seal Beach man who’s father, David, was gunned down -- remains an adamant death penalty advocate.
“California is a capital punishment state,” Caouette said, “If anyone deserves it, Scott Dekraai does.”
Regarding the hearing, Caouette said: “This has been a complete waste of time.”
While public defenders lost the two major requests, the broader issues raised during six months of intermittent testimony will resonate through justice system for some time.
Goethals noted in his opinion that had the senior prosecutor on the Dekraai case -- Dan Wagner, head of the homicide division -- conducted “any reasonable exercise of the type of due diligence required” about an informant, then “the current hearing might not have been necessary.”
Most of the allegations against prosecutors focused on their failure to reveal potentially helpful evidence to the defense in a timely manner.
And there were about 150 hours of tape recordings of informant talks with Dekraai, which illegally were made in violation of his right to counsel, defense attorneys asserted.
Goethals’ ruling affirmed a prosecution agreement in May not to use the tapes in the penalty phase of the trial.
“Abundant evidence supports the People’s decision to concede the motion, and the court now formally accepts the capitulation,” he wrote.
Reviewing the totality of the hearing, Geothals wrote: “The District Attorney’s well-documented failures in this case, although disappointing, even disheartening, to any interested member of the community, were negligent rather than malicious.
“The court also finds that these prosecutorial errors...constitute significant negligence and that they rise to the level of misconduct.”
Yet, Goethals determined the “misconduct” was not sufficient to deny prosecutors the right to continue to seek the death penalty.
Goethals wrote: “The misconduct was the product of woefully inadequate legal training, along with a lack of professional energy and strategic imagination.”
At the press conference, Rackauckas said all deputy district attorneys were required to undergo additional training on evidence disclosure rules.
In his ruling, Goethals made pointed remarks about how prosecutors and law enforcement -- particularly sheriff’s deputies who staff the county jails -- handle informants.
Fernando Perez, who collected vast information from Dekraai, was “a professional informant (and) without question working in return for anticipated benefits,” wrote Goethals, noting he faced a possible life sentence for his prior conviction.
Prosecutors argued that they weren’t responsible for Perez’s wayward actions in questioning Dekraai and others.
Goethals did not buy that argument.
“The owner of a starving dog cannot evade liability for the dog’s destructive behavior inside a butcher shop by instructing that dog not to eat just before releasing him into the shop...teaming with fresh cuts of prime beef,” the judge wrote.
Hearing testimony identified 14 defendants and two capital defendants who Sanders alleged did not receive proper disclosures of informant evidence.
Rackauckas said his office is in the process of notified such individuals about the lapses.
Such cases are expected to present a host of costly court challenges.
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 email@example.com.