With Death Sentence Looming, Judge Keeps Defense Motion Sealed in Wozniak Case

With Daniel Patrick Wozniak’s likely death sentence just days away, the judge in his double-murder case has taken the unusual step of blocking public release of the defense’s last-ditch arguments to win a new penalty trial.

For nearly two weeks, Superior Court Judge John D. Conley has refused to unseal a 185-page motion filed Sept. 2 by Wozniak’s public defender, Scott Sanders.

On Friday, during the case’s most recent hearing, Conley agreed to keep Sanders’ motion sealed because deputy district attorney Matthew Murphy said he needed more time to review the defense pleadings to insure no deleterious informant information would be inadvertently revealed. But then on Monday, Conley allowed the public release of Murphy’s response to the sealed motion.

During arguments in court Friday, Sanders repeatedly insisted there is nothing in the motion that warrants sealing, adding he “never heard” of such a series of events.

Last January, a jury recommended the death penalty for Wozniak, a Costa Mesa man who in 2010 decapitated 26-year-old Samuel E. Herr, dismembered his body, and threw the parts in an estuary. He then shot and killed Herr’s friend, 23-year-old Juri “Julie” Kibuishi, in an attempt to throw investigators off his trail.

It is widely expected that Conley will hand down a death sentence against Wozniak on Friday. There is another hearing scheduled for Wednesday, during which Conley could unseal Sanders’ motion.

Wozniak’s case has been extended for nearly three years in large part because Sanders in 2014 disclosed a wide-ranging informant network in Orange County jails, where sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors had violated the constitutional rights of criminal defendants.

Sanders’ revelations came as part of his defense of Scott Evans Dekraai — who in 2011 gunned down his ex-wife and seven other people in a Seal Beach beauty salon — but the ramifications have spilled over into the Wozniak case and others.

Various court proceedings and observers suggest Sanders’ sealed motion may include more critical or embarrassing information about the DA’s office, the court, and/or the Sheriff’s Department.

The 34-page filing by Murphy is highly critical of Sanders’ defense tactics for Wozniak and accuses him of “professional misconduct” in defenses in other cases.

When asked to comment, Sanders said: “Based on the court’s rulings, I believe I am prohibited to speak about my own brief until it is unsealed.”

In Murphy’s filing, there are hints of what Sanders is arguing in his suppressed motion for a new penalty phase trial for Wozniak.

The pleadings suggest the defense is arguing Wozniak was denied the opportunity to fully cross examine Costa Mesa detectives because information about a jail informant was withheld until this spring — when yet another batch of hidden records was uncovered at the sheriff’s department.

Additionally, the prosecution brief belittles Sanders’ apparent theory that Costa Mesa police had planned to arrest Wozniak’s fiancée — Rachel Buffett — for murder, but then did not. Sanders apparently argued this limited his ability to fully question detectives, compromising his client’s defense.

Buffett, a former child princess in Disneyland shows, and, like Wozniak, a community actor, faces three felony counts of being an accessory after the fact to the murders for allegedly lying to detectives to protect Wozniak. Her prosecution has been delayed, with the next hearing set for Nov. 10. Her Santa Ana attorney, David Medina, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.

Also, Sanders apparently alleges in his sealed motion that details relating to the 2006 beating death of John Derek Chamberlain in the Theo Lacy Jail are pertinent to his defense of Wozniak.

Chamberlain was tortured and beaten to death by fellow inmates, who mistakenly believed he was a child molester, while sheriff’s deputies failed to respond, some reportedly watching television.

Murphy argues all these issues are irrelevant, and their use is not supported by the law.

Evidence of Wozniak’s guilt is overwhelming, Murphy added, noting the killer’s confession, physical evidence, and his continued partying after the killings during the prelude to his planned wedding. Wozniak’s desire for money to pay matrimonial costs has been cited as a primary motive.

Murphy goes on to assert in the filing that Sanders has accused some 15 prosecutors — including Rackauckas — of improprieties in various prior cases.

In early 2015, after Sanders spurred an unprecedented hearing revealing informant misconduct in the Dekraai case, Judge Thomas M. Goethals barred District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ entire office from prosecuting Dekraai’s penalty phase. Dekraai pleaded guilty in 2014. That recusal ruling is under appeal by the state Attorney General’s Office, which would assume the prosecution if Goethals’ ruling is upheld.

Additionally, more than a half dozen individuals convicted of murder or other serious crimes have had their life sentences overturned based on informant revelations from Sanders’ defense of Dekraai and Wozniak.

But Conley has blocked the use at trial of details about informants in the Wozniak case, calling them irrelevant and ruling such evidence couldn’t be used by the prosecution.

In particular, Conley cut off Sanders’ probing and disclosures about a cache of computer records deputies kept secret until this past spring. This “special handling log,” in which deputies charted the activities of informants and others in the County Jail in Santa Ana, is among evidence Sander’s cites in his sealed motion, according to Murphy’s filing.

But on Thursday, Goethals will hold a hearing in the Dekraai case on Sanders’ request to unseal records from the newly disclosed special handling log. Last month, Goethals ruled “a substantial amount” of records from that log were withheld from Dekraai for years.

During the Thursday hearing, the prosecution may report to Goethals on yet more evidence that should have been revealed previously to Dekraai’s defense.

Last week, Sanders filed a motion asking Conley to unseal the special handling log in a manner to not endanger informants.

And late Monday, he filed a request for a three-week continuance to Wozniak’s sentencing — to give him time to respond to the prosecution’s criticisms.

Sanders wrote that Murphy “wanted the allegations to be seen,” preferably “at a time while [the defense] brief was sealed.” Sanders added, “This is why he claimed for 13 days” he couldn’t check the sealed motion for possible errant disclosures.

Sanders also wrote the prosecution’s misconduct allegations against him are “patently false.”

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