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

An appellate panel heard arguments Monday on a judge’s order barring Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office from prosecuting mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai, with the justices seeming to agree that the  unprecedented ruling was based on “a careful analysis.”

In March 2015, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals ruled that Rackauckas’ team couldn’t be trusted to provide Dekraai a fair trial after a months-long hearing revealed a jailhouse informant network through which sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors violated the constitutional rights of defendants by withholding evidence from their attorneys.

State Attorney General Kamala D. Harris’ office appealed that ruling on behalf of Rackauckas, leading to Monday’s hearing before a three-justice panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana.

The state argued here wasn’t sufficient evidence to support Goethals’ ruling, and it “improperly deprived” Orange County citizens of having their “chosen representative” prosecute the case.

The justices aimed sharp questions at the AG’s counsel. In one exchange, as Theodore M. Cropley — the deputy attorney general representing Harris — was making his argument to overturn Goethal’s ruling, Associate Justice Richard D. Fybel interrupted to describe the ruling as “very careful and analytical,” not “a mistake” out of “frustration.”

The other two panelists — Kathleen E. O’Leary and Raymond J. Ikola — appeared to support Fybel’s view. They too asked probing questions of Cropley, while their queries of Dekraai’s appellate attorney, senior public defender Scott Van Camp, appeared supportive.

The panel is to issue a ruling in 90 days. Such justices rarely reveal full views at argument. But their questions, their manner, and direction can sometimes suggest the coming decision.

In 2011, Dekraai marched into a Seal Beach beauty salon and massacred his ex-wife and seven others in what remains Orange County’s largest mass murder. He pleaded guilty in the spring of 2014, but is still awaiting his sentence. Rackauckas is seeking the death penalty.

During the proceedings leading to Goethals’ ruling, Dekraai’s public defender, Scott Sanders, showed how law enforcement officers and prosecutors withheld evidence about jail informants, violating the constitutional rights of his client and numerous other defendants.

Among the more shocking late disclosures were computer records, called TRED files, used by sheriff’s deputies to chart informant locations in county jails. The Sheriff’s Department withheld TRED files despite Sanders subpoenas for such records, with some deputies covering up their existence.

The DA’s office, meanwhile, denied knowledge of the 25-year-old TRED computer system.

Nonetheless, Goethals in his ruling said Rackauckas’ office had a conflict of interest — which prevented it from balancing the rights of the state and defense to fairly prosecute Dekraai in the penalty phase of his trial.

Goethals sanctioned the prosecution by limiting evidence for a penalty-phase jury to only details of the shootings,
initial police interactions with Dekraai before his incarceration, and statements about victims.

Dekraai’s attorneys have sought to have Goethals block the death penalty in favor of life without parole, arguing the rights violations constituted outrageous government conduct. So far, Goethals has not ruled the prosecution’s action were outrageous enough for such a ruling.

In legal motions and in his oral argument Monday, Cropley said there was no evidence of a DA conflict — only supposition by the defense, understandably frustrated by repeated instances of evidence irregularities.

O’Leary expressed concerns about the DA and sheriff’s deputies meeting its obligations if Rackauckas’ team was allowed to continue the prosecution, given law enforcement’s history.

With the sanctions already issued and DA’s knowledge of the sheriff’s department, Cropley argued Rackauckas’ team “is in the best position” to ensure a fair penalty trial.

But Van Camp questioned this, given the DA’s history of doing nothing “in the face of repeated lies and failures by law enforcement.”

Also Cropley also was asked about a ruling that would recuse only the prosecutors directly involved in Dekraai’s case, but he declined to offer a responding argument.

Whatever the appellate court ruling, observing attorneys expect an appeal to the California Supreme Court, which could extend a recusal decision for months.

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

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