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In a harsh rebuke to Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, a state appellate court Tuesday upheld a trial court ruling that barred his agency from continuing to prosecute the death penalty phase of mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai’s case.
The three-justice panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana unanimously supported the 2015 ruling by Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals that removed Rackauckas’ team from the case because of repeated evidence violations involving secret jailhouse informants.
Rackauckas’ office abdicated its duties, therefore it “violated Dekraai’s due process rights,” according to the 53-page opinion written by Presiding Justice Kathleen E. O’Leary.
In 2011, Dekraai committed Orange County’s largest-ever mass murder when he gunned down his ex-wife and seven others in a Seal Beach beauty salon.
After his arrest, Dekraai was put in a county jail where sheriff’s deputies used a secret informant network to illegally obtain information from him.
In its decision, the appellate court noted Dekraai’s prosecutors — Daniel Wagner, head of Rackauckas’ homicide division, and Scott Simmons — ignored a “red flag” regarding a violation of Dekraai’s right to counsel, among others.
(Click here to read the appellate court’s ruling)
After years of battling the DA for informant records, Dekraai’s public defender, Scott Sanders, showed in 2014 and 2015 during lengthy evidentiary hearings before Goethals how prosecutors and deputies for years systematically used informants to violate defendants’ rights.
The fact that the records Sanders had sought were suddenly disclosed by the DA or the Sheriff’s Department during the hearings is what prompted Goethals to issue his rare decision.
State Attorney General Kamala D. Harris appealed Goethal’s ruling on behalf of the DA’s office, calling his order “a remedy in search of a conflict.”
The appellate panel sharply criticized Harris’ stance, describing it as “nonsense.”
“To suggest [Goethals] prejudged the case is reckless and grossly unfair,” the panel stated, writing with italics for emphasis: “These proceedings were a search for truth.”
In their ruling, the justices went on to say that Rackauckas put the interests of the Sheriff’s Department above upholding the law.
The district attorney’s “loyalty to protect its primary law enforcement partner,” the court wrote, “interfered with its professional and ethical responsibilities.” This meant the DA could no longer balance the interests of the state and the defendant, producing an uncorrectable conflict of interest for the prosecution.
“The recusable conflict of interest…is based on the [district attorney’s intentional or negligent participation in a covert [confidential informant] program to obtain statements from represented defendants in violation of their constitutional rights.” the decision says. “And to withhold that information from those defendants.”
Calling the conflict “real” and “grave,” the justices said it “goes well beyond simply “distasteful or improper” prosecutorial actions.
Of the ruling, Sanders said: “After carefully studying a vast record, the Court of Appeal recognized that Judge Goethals had simply searched for the truth and reached conclusions based on that objective.”
Rackauckas’ office issued a short statement saying a decision on further prosecution of Dekraai is up to Harris — who earlier this month was elected to the U.S. Senate for a term beginning Jan. 3.
“It will be up to the California Attorney General to decide whether or not to pursue the death penalty for Dekraai, to take this case to jury to decide whether or not the defendant will get the death penalty, or to appeal the decision,” said the statement, noting the DA would support the state’s decision.
“Dekraai will never see freedom outside prison. No matter who handles the case; the defendant deserves the ultimate punishment of death.”
In spring of 2014 as the evidentiary hearings were underway under Goethals, Dekraai pleaded guilty to the murders. Sanders continues to seek to have the death penalty blocked because of prosecutorial rights violations.
A spokeswoman for Harris’ office said the appellate ruling is under review. If the current ruling stands, the AG’s office would take over the prosecution of the penalty phase of Dekraai’s trial.
A sheriff spokesman couldn’t be reached for comment.
The ruling in the Dekraai case is the latest dramatic twist in a nationally watched case where a seemingly straight forward prosecution turned into a law enforcement nightmare — with secreted informant evidence continuing to trickle out.
For instance, Goethals has been engaged in a legal battle with Sheriff Sandra Hutchens over providing Dekraai’s defense records from hidden computer files — which suddenly emerged this past spring during another death penalty case where Sanders also is the defense attorney.
Sanders’ prodding unearthed 1,157 pages of files on informant jail movements — called the “special handling log” — in the case of Daniel Patrick Wozniak; who in 2010 decapitated a neighbor and then killed the man’s friend in an attempt to cover-up his crime.
In September, Judge John D. Conley sentenced Wozniak to death for the double murder. Conley ruled last year during Wozniak’s trial that informant records couldn’t be used by the prosecution.
But Sanders then sought those records in the files that pertained to Dekraai during hearings in recent months before Goethals.
During those hearings, Goethals has strongly criticized Hutchens for failing to turn over informant evidence that should have been disclosed to Dekraai three years ago.
Acting on behalf of the sheriff, county counsel has sought to block the public release of about 200 pages of the informant notes that were discovered to Dekraai.
These notes are important because they can show how informants may have been placed near defendants to secure compromising statements. But as Goethals has noted in hearings, they also contain statements that would be embarrassing to the sheriff.
Goethals recently ruled he would not seal the 200 pages. After a county counsel appeal in a separate action, the 4th District Court of Appeal supported Goethals.
But the records release has been delayed pending a decision by county counsel to appeal to the California Supreme Court.
In its ruling Tuesday, the appellate panel cited this ongoing conflict as an example of how the DA’s office “continues to fail to ensure the [sheriff], its chief law enforcement partner, will comply with its constitutional and statutory obligations.”
“Discovery is not complete,” the panel wrote, and the district attorney’s “past substantial discovery failures are evidence it cannot be relied upon to comply with its obligations in this case moving forward.”
Rex Dalton can be reached directly at email@example.com.