The judge who presided over an unprecedented evidentiary hearing earlier this year on misconduct by the county District Attorney’s Office in prosecuting mass murder Scott Evans Dekraai has ordered an examination of new allegations of law enforcement irregularities.
On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals set a Jan. 16 hearing for Dekraai’s public defenders to question officers about evidence not disclosed through six-months of the earlier proceedings.
At the conclusion of the hearing in August, Goethals issued a stinging opinion that District Attorney Tony Rackaukas’ homicide team improperly withheld evidence from the defense.
The hearing was in response to 600 pages in motions filed by Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s lead public defender, alleging that prosecutors and law enforcement engaged a network of informants to secretly gather information from defendants in county jails in violation of their constitutional rights, like due process.
Sanders asked that Dekraai, who in May pleaded guilty to gunning down his ex-wife and seven other people in a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011, be spared the death penalty due to his rights being violated by the informants network. He also asked that the DA’s office be recused from the case.
Goethals denied those requests, but sanctioned the prosecution by blocking them from using information from informants during the death penalty phase of the case.
However, Goethal’s decision to re-open the hearing puts those possible remedies back on the table.
The new evidence that Sanders will be probing involves a previously undisclosed tracking system that allows the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to show when informants and inmates in county jails are placed in nearby cells and details their communications.
The system — called TRED in court records — is vitally important because it could provide more information about how Dekraai ended up adjacent to a jail informant, who captured compromising statements from him. These statements were among those barred for use by the DA.
Goethals’ earlier sanction order indicated he believed some DA misconduct wasn’t intentional, because the informant apparently ended up in a cell next to Dekraai by chance.
Sanders argues that sheriff’s deputies, who testified during the earlier hearing, purposely hid the system. Sheriff’s deputies have “a special handling” squad that manages the delicate and dangerous aspects of informants — but several of those officers testified at the earlier hearing without disclosing the system.
A newly discovered entry in the TRED system, Sanders wrote in a motion, compels “a finding that special handling authorized Dekraai’s move next to their star informant,” thereby disputing deputy testimony at the earlier hearing.
Sanders noted in the motion that even the prosecution acknowledged the TRED entry “undoubtedly raises questions about the accuracy” of some deputy testimony. This and other testimony indicates deputies “initiated a cover-up that included perjury,” Sanders argued.
Deputies associated with that squad — possibly three to five of them — are expected to be called when the hearing resumes in January. And the hearing could expand further.
In the meantime, Sanders will be going over voluminous new records on the jail system he recently obtained through discovery motions.
In comments to the court, Goethals expressed exasperation with how after a year and a half of litigation and the lengthy hearing, “suddenly new information washes ashore.”
Taking words from the prosecution’s court filings, Goethals said he found this “frustrating and disconcerting.”
He even asked Stephan Sauer, a senior deputy district attorney in his court, what he would do given the situation. The prosecutor acknowledged new hearing testimony was needed.
Also, a husband of one of the Dekraai victims expressed his frustration through a statement read to the courtroom that describing the continual pain experienced by his family — as a daughter is to marry without her mother present.
Before legal arguments began, Paul Wilson, whose wife, Christy Lynn Wilson, was slain by Dekraai that day, described the justice system failings as exhibited by the trial events.
In particular, he looked prosecutors in the face, saying: “Tony Rackaukas failed” everyone involved, in particular the eight victims and their families like him.
During the court session on Thursday, Sanders also sought to call other new witnesses in any new hearing to show an expanding pattern of how the DA systematically had withheld evidence in other cases.
Goethals denied that request — but not before pointing out the disturbing evidence during the earlier hearing that showed a litany of such misconduct.
The judge also broached the possibility of a new sanction against the DA, and asked prosecutors and defense their thoughts.
Under that potential new sanction: The prosecution could only describe to the penalty phase jury what occurred the day Dekraai marched into the beauty salon, armed with multiple, powerful handguns, and executed his wife and those around her — whom he referred to as “collateral damage.”
But the DA could not describe to the jury other aggravating factors, like violent incidents or crimes, which typically could be entered into evidence.
Sauer said such a sanction wasn’t appropriate.
At a minimum, Sanders said, new testimony was needed to fully determine if additional misconduct occurred.
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.