Orange County public defenders for a Costa Mesa man accused of a 2010 double murder filed a mammoth motion Wednesday alleging a 30-year history of rights violations by county law enforcement shows he shouldn’t face the death penalty because he can’t receive a fair trial here.
Defense attorneys for Daniel Patrick Wozniak use the 754-page motion to document allegations of prosecutors and law enforcement violating constitutional rights in numerous cases while “institutionally ignoring” the offenses.
“There has been an impermissible pro-prosecution thumb on the scale of justice in this county for decades,” wrote Scott Sanders, Wozniak’s lead public defender.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office and the Sheriff’s Department have “committed outrageous government conduct” in the Wozniak case, the motion states.
It goes on to say the District Attorney’s Office over time has “encouraged and permitted practices and policies that encourage the systematic withholding” of favorable evidence.
“This motion has documented an unrelenting history and ethos of concealment within the [District Attorney’s Office} and the [Sheriff’s Department] that over the course of decades has infected the agencies responsible for collecting and disclosing mitigating evidence to defendant Wozniak,” wrote Sanders.
(Click here to read the entire motion.)
Sanders is seeking a hearing to have Superior Court Judge John D. Conley put the burden of proof on the prosecution to show that it hasn’t violated Wozniak’s rights.
Wozniak is facing the death penalty for the 2010 murder of a neighbor, Samuel E. Herr, and his girlfriend Juri “Julie” Kibuishi of Irvine. Herr was decapitated and dismembered, and Kibuishi killed as a coverup attempt.
Sanders has said that Wozniak would plead guilty to the murders in return for life in prison without parole. The new motion is an attempt to eliminate the death penalty as an option.
A trial date is set for October, but the new motion and potential litigation may prompt a delay.
In a one-paragraph statement filed with the court, Matt Murphy, the deputy district attorney prosecuting Wozniak, said Sanders’ allegations are “nothing new,” having been asserted previously.
“These claims were false then, and they are false now,” Murphy wrote.
Many of the purported rights violations in the Wozniak motion involve revelations of improper use of jail informants Sanders disclosed during the last year in another high-profile murder case.
During an unprecedented hearing through 2014 and into last March, Sanders convinced Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals to recuse Rackauckas’ entire office from the prosecution of Scott Evans Dekraai -- who in 2011 committed the county's largest-ever mass murder when he gunned down his ex-wife and seven others in a Seal Beach beauty salon. Goethals ruled that the state Attorney General’s Office must prosecute the penalty phase of Dekraai’s trial. The AG's office has appealed the ruling.
Building on evidentiary violations described in a 505-page motion filed in early 2014 for Dekraai, Sanders’ Wozniak motion has constructed an extended history of similar violations from capital cases to lesser felony crimes.
Among Sanders' allegations:
• A man was wrongfully executed in 1998 due to false and withheld evidence involving a 1981 murder.
• Vital informant evidence was withheld from the case of a man who is on death row after being convicted of a 1982 murder.
• A man who died in prison in 2013 had pleaded guilty in 1985 to second degree murder in face of questionable evidence by an informant.
The new allegations also put a focus on the Wozniak judge Conley himself -- a former deputy district attorney, who was assigned the case in March after considerable legal upheaval.
Judge James A. Stotler, who previously was hearing the Wozniak case, recused himself, because he felt the fighting between the prosecution and defense clouded his view. Rackauckas’ office objected to the appointment of Goethals as a new judge. Then, when Conley was named, Sanders unsuccessfully sought to have him removed.
With the filing of his new Wozniak motion, Sanders seeks to raise questions about Conley’s performance as a top deputy district attorney before he was elected to the bench in 2001.
In his motion, Sanders writes he will attempt the unusual step of calling Conley himself to the witness stand to answer questions about the prosecutors use of informants. He calls the judge “a critical historian” of prosecution practices involving one of the region’s most notorious informants in the 1980s.
In particular, Sanders writes he will seek information about James Dean Cochrum, an informant in the case of William Lee Evins, a Texas man who died in prison in 2013.
Once called Orange County’s most-used informant, Cockrum was a serial criminal with felony convictions in California and Utah, where his full criminal history is clouded by numerous aliases that he himself couldn’t recall.
Sander’s motion describes Cochrum’s weaving trail through the legal case, using it as a foundation of the history of purported prosecutorial misconduct in Orange County.
After a hypnotized witness’ testimony was questioned, Sanders wrote that Cochrum emerged to say Evins confessed to the 1979 murder of a Fountain Valley woman. Evins was arrested at his home in Texas 17 months after the crime.
Sanders wrote that Evins consistently professed his innocence, and had no prior criminal history. An Orange County sheriff’s deputy even testified at his preliminary hearing that Cochrum was not a truthful informant.
Sanders further claims that his examination of the case uncovered other major questions and irregularities regarding Cochrum.
For one, Sanders said Rackauckas -- then a deputy district attorney -- himself traveled to Utah to vouch for Cochrum in a case pending against him there, and for his ongoing assistance in another Orange County case.
Sanders also writes about alleged improprieties in the case by another former Orange County deputy district attorney, James P. Cloninger, who was appointed to the Ventura County bench in 1995 by then Gov. Pete Wilson.
Cloninger wrote a letter to California prison authorities for Cochrum to “be given consideration,” while “misleadingly” suggesting Cochrum wasn’t seeking any benefit from Orange County authorities for his testimony.
Sanders called Cloninger’s actions “a significant deception” -- adding he hasn’t found any indication of a probe or sanction against the Cloninger, who retired in June 2014.
When Evins’ case was featured years ago in a Los Angeles Times article about informant abuse, another Orange County judge, Daniel C. Dutcher, ruled that any Evins statement to Cochrum was inadmissible because of a violation of the defendant’s right to counsel.
But Sanders writes that Conley continued to pursue the use of Cochrum as a witness in the case against Evins -- ultimately convincing the trial judge to overrule the defense attorney’s objection to Cochrum’s testimony.
Unable to prevent the informant testimony, Evins pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree murder, which he hoped would allow him to seek parole after five years in prison.
Evins’ efforts to gain parole parole failed, he then died in 2013..
Sanders says it is unclear if Evins knew of a case that would have allowed him to attempt to withdraw his appeal. His appellate attorney also died in 2013.
To his credit, Conley did disclose the Cloninger letter to prison officials to Evins’ defense attorney during the case.
But a key point that Sanders says he seeks to determine in the Wozniak case is:
What -- if anything -- did Conley and/or his associated investigators enter in a District Attorney’s Office system that charts informants at the time? And were disclosures about Cochrum from that system made to Evins’ defense attorney?
Sanders is seeking to learn more about the little-known Orange County Informant Index, or OCII, which was established by DA office for charting informants.
OCII records are seldom made available to defense attorneys; and Sanders fought extensively to secure them in the Dekraai case, where they proved instrumental in unraveling informant roles.
Also in the Dekraai case, Sanders uncovered a largely secret computerized informant and jail inmate classification system called TRED -- which testimony showed was systematically been hidden from criminal defendants since its creation in 1990 to monitor informant movements for both safety and information gathering.
The disclosure of the TRED system and its informant details late last year was a key factor in Goethals' decision to recuse Rachauckas’ office from the Dekraai prosecution. He contended the agency could not balance the defendant’s rights to a fair trial with its prosecution. Goethals also accused sheriff’s deputies and a deputy district attorney of perjury involving TRED, which has led to multiple probes.
The OCII system has the potential for a profound effect on cases, like Wozniak’s. It contains information about at least one informant used to gather information from Wozniak, Sanders writes.
In recent Wozniak rulings, Conley has rejected Sanders’ motions to both recuse Rackauckas’s office from the prosecution -- and a second motion to question a producer of a MSNBC reality program, Lockup, about how she came to film Wozniak the summer of 2010 right after the double murder.
Sanders argues this was a violation of Wozniak’s right to counsel. The films potentially could be used at the penalty phase of the trial.
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