An Orange County Superior Court judge recused himself Tuesday from the double-murder trial of a Costa Mesa man — the latest upheaval following allegations by the county Public Defender’s Office of widespread prosecutorial misconduct involving informants in capital cases.
Judge James A. Stotler told the court another judge should be assigned to hear the case against Daniel Patrick Wozniak — who allegedly killed and dismembered a man and murdered a woman in May 2010.
Prosecutors allege Wozniak killed 26-year-old Samuel Herr of Costa Mesa to get access to money to pay for his own wedding, then killed 23-year-old Juri “Julie” Kibuishi as part of his effort to cover-up the crime.
Stotler told the court he took the unusual step of removing himself from the case because he feared his negative feelings toward Scott Sanders, Wozniak’s lead public defender, could potentially prejudice the case, Sanders said in an interview.
Stotler’s recusal is the latest courthouse rumble after an unprecedented evidentiary hearing last year in another murder case in which Sanders alleged a secret informant network run by Orange County sheriff’s deputies in the county jails violated the constitutional rights of defendants.
The revelations by Sanders in that trial of Scott Evans Dekraai — who admitted to the 2011 slaughter of his wife and seven others in a Seal Beach beauty salon — have led to the dropping or vacating of murder and/or other serious charges against three defendants in other cases.
After the six-month hearing in the Dekraai case, which arose from a 505-page motion filed by Sanders, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals ruled last August there was misconduct in failures by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to properly disclose jail informant evidence to Dekraai’s defense.
Goethals denied Sanders’ request that he remove the death penalty from the Dekraai case and recuse the DA’s Office. But he did sanction the prosecution, saying they couldn’t use in the trial’s coming penalty phase tapes or informant records illegally obtained.
While members of the defense bar and other courtroom observers have cheered Sanders for his work in the Dekraai case, he’s drawn the scorn of some prosecutors and former prosecutors. [Stotler is a former deputy district attorney and private defense lawyer.]
In an 81-page motion filed last week in the Wozniak case, Sanders sought to have the death penalty blocked, arguing he couldn’t get a fair trial. Wozniak has said he would plead guilty to receive life without possibility of parole.
The motion cites the Dekraai hearing that showed 18 other defendants — 14 of whom faced murder charges, plus two on death row — had informant discovery evidence withheld from them by prosecutors, potentially violating their constitutional rights.
That motion followed several others Sanders filed earlier this month in the Wozniak case, which alleged irregularities involving the same jail informant who was used in the Dekraai case.
Sanders’ allegations include withholding evidence from the Wozniak defense, which was revealed as a result of sheriff deputy testimony in the Dekraai hearing. Sanders also alleged impropriety by deputy district attorney Matthew Murphy, who is prosecuting Wozniak.
When Stotler made his recusal decision, he had been considering Sanders’ motions — which included a Jan. 23 request to remove Murphy as prosecutor because his personal attacks on the defense undermined the prosecutor’s ability to act fairly at trial. At recent hearings, Murphy has denied any impropriety.
After Stotler recused himself, Richard M. King, the Superior Court’s supervising judge for the central felony panel, assigned the Wozniak case to Goethals.
(Update: On Thursday, the DA’s Office exercised its right to seek a recusal of an assigned judge in the Wozniak case, thereby eliminating Goethals. Superior Court Judge John D. Conley was then assigned by King as the new judge in the Wozniak case.)
Sanders declined to comment specifically on his future plans for the case, given Tuesday’s events. The District Attorney’s Office could object to the appointment of Goethals, but has not responded to requests for comment on the case from Voice of OC.
Earlier this month, Sanders had said he might file a motion to recuse all Orange County Superior Court judges. An outside judge would be called to hear the case, if such an effort were to be successful.
Irrespective of which judge hears Wozniak’s case, Sanders has said he plans to seek an evidentiary hearing over alleged constitutional rights violations of Wozniak.
Already, new allegations of previously undisclosed irregularities involving informants has prompted Goethals to reopen the Dekraai evidentiary hearing, with testimony to start on Feb. 5.
In his recent motion in the Wozniak case, Sanders described the new evidence as a sheriff’s computerized tracking system for the jail cell locations of inmate informants that dates back at least to 1990.
Called TRED, the system was hidden by both law enforcement and prosecutors from defense attorneys in countless cases, according to Sanders’ motions. TRED records show law enforcement officers lied during the Dekraai hearing about an undercover informant who secured information from both Dekraai and Wozniak, according to the motion
In June 2010, about two weeks after the Wozniak murders, TRED records show how an inmate — later identified as a valuable informant in multiple cases — was set up to engage Wozniak, according to Sanders’ motion.
The informant — Fernando “Wicked” Perez, a Mexican Mafia leader, who was seeking sentencing leniency — was moved by sheriff’s deputies in the “special handling” unit, which manages the jail informant network, the motion states.
First, Perez’s plastic identifying armband was changed, the motion says, so inmates wouldn’t deduce he was an informant. Then after Perez was put in a cell in a particular section on June 16, 2010, Wozniak was placed in a nearby cell the next day, the motion states, citing jail records.
“All of this illustrates the power of a dishonest member of law enforcement to corrupt the justice system, particularly when they receive the unconditional backing of the prosecutor’s office,” Sanders wrote in the motion.