DA’s Office Rebuked for Blocking Dekraai Judge From Other Cases

Judge Thomas M. Goethals (left). District Attorney Tony Rackauckas (right). (Pool photos)

An Orange County Superior Court judge has ruled District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office is disrupting the region’s “orderly administration of justice” by improperly diverting murder cases from the judge who exposed the jail informant scandal.

The extraordinary Dec. 3 order by Judge Richard M. King — the supervising judge in charge of assigning felony cases — says Rackauckas’ office has abused a routine challenge procedure to keep Judge Thomas M. Goethals from trying the cases.

Last March, Goethals blocked Rackauckas’ entire office from continuing to prosecute convicted mass murder Scott Evans Dekraai — after an unprecedented hearing revealed prosecutorial misconduct involving jail informants. The state Attorney General’s office is to prosecute Dekraai for killing his ex-wife and seven others in 2011 in Seal Beach, pending an appeal of Goethals’ ruling.

Shortly after Goethals’ ruling, it was disclosed that Rackauckas’ office had for the prior year issued challenges that knocked Goethals off of 57 criminal cases.

In his recent order, King described how such excessive prosecutor challenges have continued in murder cases.

From Dec. 7, 2010, through Feb. 24, 2014, the order says Goethals was assigned 35 murder cases, but disqualified only once. But from Feb. 25, 2014, through this past September, Goethals was assigned 49 murder cases, but disqualified by prosecutors 46 times.

(Click here to read King’s ruling.)

King noted that Rackaucks’ office began the inordinate number of challenges to Goethals immediately after the judge on Feb. 25, 2014, recused a deputy district attorney, Erik S. Petersen from prosecuting a felony case for intentionally withholding evidence from defendants.

Ultimately, Goethals ruled that Petersen testified falsely during the unprecedented evidentiary hearing in the Dekraai case. Last September, Petersen resigned from county prosecution office.

“This disparity is not coincidental,” King wrote, but resulted from the Dekraai recusal ruling and two other cases where Goethals issued orders critical of the prosecution.

Rackaukas’ office issued a statement saying the district attorney “respectfully disagrees” with King’s ruling and intends to immediately appeal.

King’s ruling is “contrary to well established statutory and [case] law,” the statement says.

Goethals’ rulings spawned a criminal investigation by state Attorney General Kamala Harris of reputed false testimony by law enforcement at the Dekraai trial; a county review of Rackaucks’ office; and calls by national legal leaders for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Noting the county is the nation’s sixth largest, King wrote the district attorney’s actions have “negatively impacted not only the assignment of murder cases, but all felony cases as well.”

King wrote that he had concluded that the district attorney had violated the Code of Civil Procedure, which is the framework for court actions.

Rackauckas’ actions therefore were in violation of the separation of powers of the United States and California constitutions.

Writing about the impact of Goethals’ recusals, King stated:

“Not only did this remove one of the most experienced, independent and capable judges from hearing cases that require such experience and expertise, it sent a clear and loud message to other local judges that they could expect similar treatment if they allowed the defense to inquire into similar allegations of misconduct.”

King’s Dec. 3 order was first uncovered in the second-degree murder case of Aleksandar Apostolovic, a 27-year-old Santa Ana man who allegedly killed a 12-year-old girl in Westminster in a high-speed crash.

But King issued the same ruling on the same day in another murder case, denying the prosecutor’s attempts to block Goethals from that case.
That other case involves a murder charge against Rito Tejada, 23, of Santa Ana for the 2013 stabbing of a Huntington Beach man. Tejada has pleaded innocent.

In the Apostolovic case, King, as supervising judge, assigned the trial to Goethals.

That same day, records say a challenge order was filed with the court on behalf of deputy district attorney James S. Mendelson, who is prosecuting Apostolovic.

Then shortly thereafter King filed his 49-page ruling, denying the challenge to Goethals.

The filing of the extensive ruling with elaborate legal arguments on such short notice would indicate that King had prepared in advance to take the action.

King ruled in a manner to allow Rackaucks to appeal to the state 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana.

A pretrial hearing in Apostolovic’s case is set for Dec. 18.

Apostolovic’s public defender, Matthew B. Darling, declined comment.

A previous version of this article incorrectly named the Superior Court judge who issued the order rebuking the Orange County District Attorney’s office. We regret the error.

Rex Dalton can be reached at rexdalton@aol.com.

  • So, the most corrupt district attorney in the State of California is at it again. Judge Goethals is distinguished member of the court and has proven himself in his actions in uncovering the cesspool in T-Rack’s pit of vipers. This county deserves a new DA. I’m not sure if Spitzer is the answer and Tony’s annointed one, the Dragon Lady, certainly isn’t. Anyone has to do better than what we currently have.

  • Al Gibson

    Housecleaning is needed. When the public faith is shaken in the criminal justice system, the legitimacy of our local governance is at risk. Rackauckas has too many failures to continue on. He and his whole regime needs to go.

    • LFOldTimer

      “When the public faith is shaken in the criminal justice system, the legitimacy of our local governance is at risk.”
      IMO it’s already gone. Even when caught red-handed they continue in cover-up mode. Even though criminal case after criminal case is being struck down and scheduled for retrial, dismissed or plea-bargained down allowing cold-blooded murderers to walk away with hand-slaps due to the evidence surrounding jailgate. You don’t think the assigned judges smell a rat? How would you like to be a loved one of one of the murder victims? If that isn’t “lost legitimacy” I don’t know what is. And then they told us that by keeping Stephen Connolly at the OIR on board @ $17,500 a month with a contract extension that it would keep the feds at bay! heh. More hogwash. The feds will trample over top of Connolly as they enter OCSD HQ’s w/ search warrants in hand. The whole operation is built on a house of cards. Mike Carona must have a grin on his face from ear to ear. At some point cover-ups are laughable. Like handing the naked emperor a top hat to wear and reporting he’s now fully clothed.

  • Bob Brock

    My goodness. Rackauckas has no shame. How unbelievably brazen to endeavor to “punish” a judge for simply holding T-Rack accountable for the illegal activities perpetrated by him and his Deputy DA’s. His office under his “leadership” has made the one-time pride of being a prosecutor now an embarrassment.

  • LFOldTimer

    Look, the buck stops at the desks of the OC Supervisors. But they’ll try to wash their hand of it by claiming they are separate from the court system and must honor that separation. Yet they didn’t hesitate to stick their noses into the matter on Judge M. Mark Kelly, did they? In fact a couple of them were wearing bells and whistles at his recall rally. heh. And the majority voted to chastise his seat on the bench. Oh, but there’s a separation clause that they must honor. Horsepuckey! I don’t know about you. I’m disgusted with all these double standards and attacks on human decency from the very top. The BoS funds the DA’s office. IMO they are the ones in charge here. For them to have sat back and mostly turned a blind eye to this despicable behavior and held hands with the Sheriff who has been the ringleader of the coverup by protecting the varmits involved is just reprehensible. Do we have ANY elected leaders in OC who live or guide others by the direction of a moral code? Or have we turned into a modern-day Babylon???

  • Bob Stevens

    Every defense attorney who has ever walked the halls of Orange County courthouses has done the exact same thing. If this judge wants to do this then fine but he needs to step up and censor all attorneys for doing this, not just the DA’s.

    • LFOldTimer

      Defense attorneys can’t charge people with crimes and throw them in jail. See the difference yet? I expect DDA’s to be held to a much higher standard than a defense attorney, just by virtue of the power they wield. And those in the know understand that in the courtroom the scales of justice are greatly tilted in favor of the prosection, despite what Lady Justice might indicate as you walk inside the courthouse. So IMO your opinion is greatly flawed.

      • Bob Stevens

        You can’t hold one side to a higher standard since they both operate under the same set of rules. The first thing the judge told us during jury duty was that there is one standard and everyone is held to the same standard.

        • LFOldTimer

          Nah. In America the one with the greatest amount of power and authority is “supposed” to be the one held to the highest standard. I learned that in 5th grade civics class. At least that’s the way it’s “supposed” to work. In real life I don’t see higher standards practiced much of anywhere anymore. In fact, those who are “supposed” to adhere to higher standards actually practice lower standards. Higher standards and their intentions have become a farce. But Bob – if you can’t see the difference in power between a defense attorney and a prosecutor – I can’t help ya, buddy. We’ll just have to disagree and leave it at that.

  • RyanCantor

    Orange County needs a new DA!

    • LFOldTimer

      I nominate Judge Thomas Goethals. And by God, I’d walk the neighborhood to promote him if he entered the race!

      • Paul Lucas

        Good idea

    • Paul Lucas

      Orange County needs to be raided by the Feds.

  • LFOldTimer

    God Bless ya, Judge King. Indiscriminate bullying against a man who exposed courthouse wrongdoing on part of OCSD and the prosecuting attorney’s office shouldn’t be allowed in our House of Justice. It is a violation of all moral codes known to the civilized world. This is costing the taxpayers many many millions of dollars to retry murder and other serious felony cases. Judge Goethals is a courageous man and all the good and decent people should surround and protect him. The freedom and liberty of our very system is at stake here. If they are alllowed to rub Judge Goethal’s nose in a smattering of unjust courthouse droppings, we are no longer a free society. It is now time to come to the aide of Judge Goethals. The man took a huge risk by doing the right thing. He didn’t have to take that risk. He could have turned a blind eye like many others might have done. His courage is exceptional. For the love of God – help him!!!!

    • Greg Diamond

      I would love to see Goethals run for OC District Attorney in 2018. I don’t know or care about his political views; he’s the guy I’d want to see fixing the OCDA’s department. I’d bet he’d get an overwhelming number of Democratic and independent votes, and a healthy share of the Republicans.

      • LFOldTimer

        He’s guaranteed 2 votes from my household. IMO the man walks on water. The County should mount statutes of him and Sanders side by side, right next to Lady Justice. They did the insurmountable and took substantial risk that neither had to take. I thank the good Lord we still have people of their caliber in high places who are able to make a difference. Without them the Nation and our ideals are toast. Real heroes are those who step into the line of proverbial fire when it’s just as easy to avoid it entirely. Courage is what made America great. Unfortunately today it’s at a premium. About as rare as integrity.