State Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Wednesday he will continue to seek the death penalty against mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai, who shot and killed eight people in 2011 in the deadliest shooting in Orange County’s history.
“This tragic event has caused so much harm to far too many families,” said Becerra in a news release. “After weighing the evidence, considering the law and the responsibilities of my office, I have concluded that the appropriate course of action is to seek the death penalty in this case.”
The attorney general’s announcement comes just before a pretrial hearing on Thursday, part of the penalty phase of the Dekraai’s case that will determine whether he serves a life sentence or receives the death penalty.
Dekraai pleaded guilty to the killings but is contesting efforts to sentence him to death.
His case has been stalled for years since his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, uncovered what became the “jailhouse snitch scandal.”
Orange County Sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors with the Orange County District Attorney’s office used a network of jailhouse informants to obtain confessions from Dekraai and others without disclosing that evidence to defense attorneys.
The attorney general took over the case after Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals barred the DA from the case in March 2015, saying prosecutors violated Dekraai’s rights by repeatedly failing to turn over key evidence. The attorney general appealed that decision, but it was later upheld by a state appeals court.
Sanders said Wednesday his office was “disappointed” they weren’t informed of the Attorney General’s intention to seek the death penalty until the press release.
“However, as we will begin to show very soon, the misconduct that has poisoned this litigation is far more extensive than even known to the defense a few months ago,” Sanders said in statement. “We look forward to fully adjudicating all of the issues relevant to this case.”
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas issued a statement Wednesday afternoon supporting Becerra’s decision to seek the death penalty.
“If the perpetrator of a mass slaughter of innocent people doesn’t deserve the death penalty, it’s hard to imagine a criminal who would,” Rackauckas said in the statement. “The OCDA secured a guilty plea on May 2, 2014, and now the People of Orange County will have the opportunity to decide Dekraai’s fate.”
A Records Battle
Sanders argues the violations of Dekraai’s rights are serious enough that he should be spared the death penalty.
A 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibits government officials and their informants from questioning defendants in custody who have been charged with a crime and have legal representation.
Disclosure of the rights violations have led judges to overturn the convictions of at least six Orange County defendants charged with murder and other serious crimes. In addition to prosecuting Dekraai for the 2011 killings, the state attorney general is conducting a separate criminal investigation into the Sheriff’s and DA’s use of jailhouse informants. The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights investigation of the use of jailhouse informants and the Orange County Grand Jury is doing an investigation.
Goethals has ordered an evidentiary hearing beginning Thursday to address how the Sheriff’s Department handled informants’ records and whether it attempted to cover up the program by withholding or destroying evidence.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who has repeatedly denied her department systematically used jailhouse informants to obtain evidence, has been sharply rebuked by Goethals over the past several months for failing to disclose thousands of pages of notes kept by deputies on informants.
In January, after Sanders learned of a 2014 policy approved by the county Board of Supervisors allowing the Sheriff’s Department to destroy documents that included records about jailhouse informants, Goethals threatened to hold Hutchens in contempt of court if her office destroys any records.
Hutchens has been subpoenaed by Sanders and could be ordered to testify.
Sanders argues the fact that the department sought approval from the supervisors is evidence of “a broader effort to align policies with misleading statements about the use of informants…and to eliminate inconsistent evidence that could further embarrass the agency,” according to a motion he filed Feb. 9.
In early 2016, the supervisors suspended the policy in order to preserve the informant records although it is unknown whether any records were destroyed while the policy was in effect. The county’s attorneys say the board’s action didn’t alter its past records retention policy and insist nothing improper occurred.
A sampling of confidential memos disclosed in court files on Feb. 10 between the Sheriff’s Department and the Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fullerton police departments suggests there was coordination between the Sheriff’s Department and at least some local police on the placement of informants with defendants in the jail to record confessions.
The Sheriff repeatedly has denied it was a common practice.
In a November 2016 memo between Santa Ana detective Roland Andrade and Assistant Sheriff Mike James, Andrade requests a gang member and suspect in several shootings be monitored and placed in a recorded cell next to a Santa Ana Police Department informant.
“Based on the facts of the case, it will be extremely difficult to prosecute [redacted] for the murder absent any incriminating statements,” the email reads.
At a Feb. 10 hearing, Goethals read emails in two cases describing how sheriff deputies, an assistant sheriff and a Santa Ana homicide detective were involved in planning to deploy informants to secure compromising statements from inmates.
“My God,” exclaimed Goethals about one email from November 2011, the month after Dekraai’s slaughter. “What’s going on over there? If that’s not a smoking gun, I don’t know what is.”
Thursday’s pretrial hearing begins at 9:00 a.m. in courtroom C45.
Contact Thy Vo at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.