Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals Thursday threw out an Anaheim man's life sentence and murder conviction for killing a pregnant Fullerton woman in 1998, handing District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' team yet another rebuke in the wake of the jailhouse informants scandal.
Goethals ruled that the constitutional rights of Henry Rodriguez, 39, were violated during his second trial in 2006, when the prosecution team withheld vital evidence regarding an informant from his defense attorney.
The judge set bail at $1 million for Rodriguez, who has been incarcerated since shortly after the murder. On April 11, Rodriguez’s case will be assigned to a new judge for retrial or other action.
“It is great,” said his father, Enrique Rodriguez, who attended the hearing with several family members who exchanged emotional smiles with the chained defendant.
A Seasoned Snitch
During a special hearing in recent weeks, Rodriguez’s defense attorney, James M. Crawford of Orange, presented newly discovered evidence showing multiple violations of rights in the use of Michael James Garrity -- a seasoned jailhouse informant whose misdeeds were hidden when he testified in 2006 about Rodriguez’s involvement in the murder.
“The judge did the right thing,” said Crawford. “The prosecution shouldn’t have opposed a new trial in the first place. This shows they want to win at all costs.”
But in a statement, Rackauckas’ office said it will appeal the decision, arguing the judge made incorrect legal rulings.
It stated that certain evidence in question didn’t need to be disclosed, it was incorrect to include sheriff’s deputies as part of the prosecution team, and Rodriguez’s defense counsel already had the information that was in some files that weren’t disclosed.
The crucial defense evidence came from databases at both the DA's office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department -- which included important informant information kept secret until the recent trial of Scott Evans Dekraai, who has been convicted in the 2011 mass murder of his ex-wife and seven others in a Seal Beach beauty salon.
In that case, Dekraai's public defender, Scott Sanders, exposed the informants network involving DA prosecutors and sheriff's deputies who staff the jails. Following a nearly year-long hearing on Sanders' disclosures, Goethals last year took the unprecedented step of barring the DA's office from continuing to prosecute the case.
Rodriguez is among nearly a dozen defendants who have had their convictions overturned, vacated, sentences reduced or charges dropped
Throughout the case, Rodriguez has maintained that he was not directly involved with the murder, but was an accessory after the fact by helping dispose of the body in the ocean. Richard Tovar of Anaheim is serving a life sentence for two counts of murder for killing Jeanette Espeleta and her unborn child.
Following Rodriguez’s first murder conviction in 2001, an appellate court in 2003 ruled harmful statements illegally obtained by police shouldn’t have been admitted as evidence.
Then in 2006 when Rodriguez was retried, prosecutors won another conviction, buttressing their case with information provided by informant Garrity.
While housed in “a snitch tank” in 1999 with Rodriguez in County Jail in Santa Ana, Garrity told Fullerton police Rodriquez allegedly made compromising statements that linked him to the murder, court records say. It was these statements that Garrity repeated at the 2006 retrial.
In 1999, Rodriguez’s defense attorney argued Garrity was “a planted snitch” who served as “a hired gun” for law enforcement to improperly secure the statements. But prosecutors buried records that supported this argument.
After repeated prosecution attempts to keep them confidential, Goethals in recent months unsealed records that showed prosecutors should have disclosed Garrity’s extensive history as an informant, consideration he was given by law enforcement, and wayward police investigative actions.
(Click here to read Goethals' ruling)
The prosecution’s “failure to provide this discovery [evidence] was an error of constitutional dimension,” wrote Goethals in his eight-page opinion today. “The factual record in this case is troubling.”
In the 2006, prosecutors then were able “to successfully argue facts, to both a judge and a jury, which did not mirror reality,” Goethals wrote.
A Public Fight
The Rodriguez decision comes amid mounting public discord over the actions of Rackauckas’ team, and likely will add fodder to the continually evolving saga.
For instance, a public forum involving Rackauckas, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, and Dekraai’s defense attorney, Scott Sanders, is scheduled to be held at 7 p.m. Monday at the Orange County Register's Santa Ana offices.
An earlier public debate was held Feb. 17 at the UC Irvine School of Law between Sanders and a Rackauckas’ assistant district attorney, Ebrahim Baytieh.
At that session, heavily attended by law students, Baytieh blasted the school’s dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, as “intellectually dishonest” for the way he has led the charge for a federal investigation of Rackauckas’ office.
This stunned students and faculty, who questioned Baytieh about how they could have faith in the office to correct any mistakes given such a stance.
Baytieh noted Rackauckas had written a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice welcoming a review, saying it would show they did nothing wrong.
Some attorneys in the audience attributed the stridency of Baytieh’s comments to Chemerinsky formally joining some legal arguments against Rackauckas
In December, the supervising Superior Court judge who assigns major felony cases to judges took the unprecedented action of blocking attempts by Rackauckas’ team to disqualify Goethals from murder cases.
Judge Richard M. King, who oversees the nearly 20 judges on the felony case panel, filed a 49-page order that the district attorney was playing havoc with the “orderly administration of justice” of the already overburdened court.
King’s order was filed in five separate cases -- some involving multiple defendants -- in which he sought to deny the disqualification of Goethals.
Since the 2014 disclosures in the Dekraai case, King -- himself a former deputy district attorney -- wrote in his ruling that Rackauckas’ office disqualified Goethals in 46 of 49 murder case assignments.
“This was not a coincidence,” wrote King, noting prosecutorial actions removed one of “the most experienced, independent and capable” judges from the cases.
Rackauckas’ office disputed King’s assertions, appealing to the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana.
Now Chemerinsky, along with a Los Angeles civil rights attorney, is fighting for King’s position in the five court cases where the supervising judge rejected Goethals’ disqualification.
In those cases, Chemerinsky and co-counsel in a 34-page brief calls Rackauckas’ actions regarding Goethals “extraordinary and unprecedented,” creating the first such court conflict in California legal history.
Dated Jan. 15, the brief notes that such a dispute has occurred in other states, but each time the courts ruled against prosecutors acting like Rackauckas’ team.
For these reasons, King “was justified” in asserting the prosecutor “interfered with the functioning of the judiciary and violated the separation of powers,” said the brief, also signed by Paul L. Hoffman, formerly a long-time attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles.
The appellate court now has empaneled three judges to consider this dispute, which likely won’t be resolved for months.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the names of Tony Rackauckas and Erwin Chemerinsky. We regret the errors.
Rex Dalton can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.