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A man facing two murder charges in Santa Ana Superior Court that could have earned the death penalty was on Tuesday to be released from jail because of evidence violations by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ prosecutors that undermined the cases.
Judge Patrick Donahue dismissed one murder charge with penalty enhancements against Isaac John Palacios — who in the second murder case agreed to a guilty plea deal that granted him probation, an extremely rare penalty for such a serious charge.
The collapse of the case against Palacios is the second unrelated prosecution to be altered by a pattern of questionable conduct by the District Attorney’s Office that was disclosed recently during the trial of convicted mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai.
Like in the Dekraai case, Palacios’ defense attorney, Gary M. Pohlson, argued that jailhouse informants improperly garnered information, then the prosecution withheld the evidence that legally should have been disclosed. Pohlson couldn’t be reached for comment.
A spokesperson for Rackauckas did not respond to a request for comment.
Families of the victims attending the court hearing reportedly were stunned and upset.
The failed prosecution of Palacios for allegations of gang-related murders in 2005 and 2006 is expected to further rock the District Attorney’s office, which also faces possible other prosecution setbacks derived from the Dekraai case disclosures.
In the prosecution of Dekraai for killing his wife and seven others in 2011 in a Seal Beach beauty salon, county public defenders showed in an unprecedented, six-month hearing that prosecutors and law enforcement officers improperly used jailhouse informants to gather evidence that then illegally was withheld from defense attorneys.
This prompted Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals in August to rule that the District Attorney’s office engaged in misconduct in prosecuting Dekraai — which brought a sanction of excluding informant evidence expected to be used to try to win the death penalty for Dekraai.
Dekraai’s attorneys failed to block the death penalty for their client as the sanction they had sought for prosecution misconduct; he now faces a penalty phase trial, possibly next year.
Already in June in the first other case disrupted by the Dekraai hearing disclosures, a Superior Court judge vacated the 2010 murder conviction and life sentence of a Santa Ana man, convicted in a 2004 gang-related killing.
The District Attorney’s office agreed to a deal where the conviction of Leonel Santiago Vega, 34 — once a high-ranking Mexican Mafia leader — would be set aside, and a new trial sought.
Capitalizing on prosecutorial evidentiary errors uncovered during the Dekraai hearing, a Vega defense attorney was seeking to have the state prison inmate’s conviction overturned based on constitutional rights violations when the District Attorney’s office agreed to the pact to vacate the conviction.
In some respects, the alleged violations of defendant rights in the Palacios case were more substantial than those in the Vega case, defense attorneys say.
After deploying two of their long-time informants, prosecutors and law enforcement officers withheld voluminous records from Palacios’ defense attorney, Dekraai’s attorneys said in court records — including purported confessions to both murders.
“The misconduct by the Palacio prosecution team that was identified in the Dekraai hearing undoubtedly was some of the worst violations of a defendant’s constitutional rights that we have seen,” said Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s lead defense attorney.
With a record of prior violent convictions, Palacios was facing trial in October for the two murders when the District Attorney’s Office cases folded Tuesday in Donahue’s courtroom.
For his guilty plea for the one murder charge, court records show Palacios was credited with more than three years time served in jail and was to be released on five years probation.