Judge Throws Out First-Degree Murder Charge Because of “Serious Misconduct” by DA’s Prosecutors

Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals Wednesday barred the Orange County District Attorney’s office from pursuing first degree murder charges against Cole Wilkins, who is facing a re-trial for the 2006 death of an off-duty Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy.

In his ruling, Goethals wrote the “serious misconduct” of former Orange County District Attorney prosecutor Michael Murray and his team was so egregious Wilkins must instead be tried for second degree murder, a lesser charge.

“When the trial prosecutor was repeatedly put on notice that there were irregularities involving the investigation of his case—twice by members of his own prosecution team–he was constitutionally obliged to address the issue. He did not,” Goethals wrote.

Wilkins has been in jail for nearly a decade for the death of LA Sheriff’s deputy David Piquette, who was killed in a traffic collision when he swerved his car to avoid a stolen stove that fell off Wilkin’s pick-up truck.

In their original report, California Highway Patrol officers ruled the death of the 34-year-old deputy was an accident because other motorists ahead of Piquette had been able to avoid the stove. But a superior officer ordered that report changed to say it was Wilkins’ fault and prosecutors filed murder charges against him because the death occurred during the commission of a felony, stealing the stove. It’s known as the felony murder rule.

DA prosecutors in 2008 won a first degree murder conviction of Wilkins without his defense attorneys knowing about the original CHP report. But the state Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction in 2013, saying he had put enough distance between himself and the robbery site to reach “a place of safety” unconnected to his crime.

On Wednesday, Goethals ruled prosecutors so egregiously violated Wilkin’s right to a fair trial that they no longer can use the felony murder rule in their re-trial and must instead prove a crime occurred at a higher standard: that Wilkins acted with “implied malice,” or a conscious disregard for human life.

Not only did sworn members of the CHP alter police reports that could have helped Wilkins’ case, but the reports were later intentionally destroyed, Goethals wrote.

“The trial prosecutor compounded the problem by essentially ignoring information he received that should have put him on notice of law enforcement’s conduct,” Goethals wrote in the ruling.

In January, Goethals made a largely symbolic ruling barring Murray and fellow former prosecutor Larry Yellin, who have since been elected Superior Court judges, from ever retrying the case if they ever returned to the DA’s office.

Both Yellin and Murray denied knowing the CHP destroyed the records, and DA prosecutors have argued the reports would have been irrelevant anyway.

The Wilkins case is the latest example of the DA’s office allegedly violating the constitutional rights of defendants by keeping information from defense lawyers.

The DA’s office is currently under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division, state Attorney General and Orange County Grand Jury for its use of jailhouse informants to secretly obtain evidence against criminal defendants that they never handed over to defense attorneys.

In 2015, Goethals barred the District Attorney’s office from handling the death penalty phase of the case against Scott Evans Dekraai, who admitted to the 2011 slaughter of his ex-wife and seven others at a Seal Beach beauty salon.

So far at least six defendants have had their convictions for murder or other major crimes overturned for rights violations by the use of informants.

Deputy Public Defender Sara Ross sought to have the DA’s office recused from the Wilkins case, arguing the office has a history of failing to turn over favorable evidence to the defense, a request which Goethals denied.

Through its spokeswoman Michelle Van Der Linden, the DA’s office said it is “in profound disagreement” with the court’s finding of facts and interpretation of the law in dismissing the first degree murder charge.

“We are in the process of reviewing all of our options, including appealing or moving forward to trial on a second degree murder charge,” Van Der Linden wrote in a statement emailed to reporters.

“What changed today is the Orange County District Attorney’s Office’s (OCDA) ability to pursue a first degree murder charge.  What has not changed is the OCDA’s resolve to hold Cole Wilkins accountable for the death of Los Angeles Sheriff Deputy David Piquette and depriving his wife and young family of a lifetime together,” the statement reads.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.