Judge Set to Rule on Whether Seal Beach Mass Murderer Faces Death Penalty

Scott Dekraai, who murdered eight people in Seal Beach in 2011, sits in a courtroom at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana during his trial on Monday, June 5, 2017. JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals will rule Aug. 18 whether to block mass murderer Scott Dekraai from receiving the death penalty and determine if the Sheriff’s Department can be trusted to turn over all records ordered by the court.

Attorneys gave their final arguments Thursday to close an evidentiary hearing which started in late May in which Dekraai’s attorneys alleged the District Attorney’s office and Sheriff’s Department  failed to provide court-ordered records in the past. The defense lawyers contend its possible the DA and Sheriff’s Department still haven’t turned over everything and suggest Dekraai  should be spared the death penalty because he won’t receive a fair trial on the penalty he is to face for the murders.

If Goethals agrees with the defense arguments, it would mean a jury wouldn’t decide Dekraai’s sentence. Instead, Goethals would eliminate the death penalty altogether and Dekraai would be sentenced to eight consecutive life terms in prison, one term for each person he killed.

“You ever see a court do what you’re asking me to do?” Goethals asked Deputy Public Defender Sara Ross, who is co-counsel on the case.

“No, but I’ve never seen a prosecution team do what they have done,” said Ross.

The prosecution of Dekraai, who fatally shot eight people in 2011 at a Seal Beach beauty salon, has dragged on for years despite a confession he made to law enforcement and a guilty plea. But a jail house informant also reported receiving a confession from Dekraai. After a defendant has a lawyer, as Dekraai did, it’s a violation of constitutional rights to use an informant to obtain a confession.

Since then the belated disclosure of thousands of key jail records in late 2014 and early 2016 has introduced additional evidence revealing much broader use of jail informants in Orange County jails, rankling Goethals, who has questioned why it took so long for the Sheriff’s Department to turn over records he ordered in 2013. The issue has become popularly known as the “jailhouse snitch scandal.”

The informant concerns triggered the evidentiary hearing, where 21 Sheriff’s Department officials, including Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, testified about the department’s handling of records and use of informants.

The defense has argued that given the Sheriff’s past history of failing to disclose records in the case, the department can’t be trusted to turn things over.

“They haven’t followed your orders, they’ve been destroying records, they’ve not been turning things over,” said Ross. “The fact that they’re not turning over evidence in any capacity should be troubling and significant.”

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders said another factor affecting the fairness of Dekraai’s trial is whether the defense will have access to mitigating evidence, or evidence such as good behavior in jail that might assist Dekraai in his sentencing trial.

He argued the Sheriff’s department has a history of aiding the prosecution, is invested in seeing Dekraai receive the death penalty, and can’t be trusted to turn over mitigating evidence.

Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy, who took over prosecution of the case in 2015 after Goethals recused the entire District Attorney’s Office because of the informants issue, argued Thursday the defense hasn’t proven Dekraai’s future penalty trial would be unfair, and absent that evidence, Goethals can’t lawfully throw out the death penalty.

Murphy conceded the hearing uncovered misconduct, but because the evidence considered during a penalty trial would be limited to Dekraai’s character and his crime, he argued much of the evidence that was revealed in the hearing is irrelevant to the penalty trial.

“I’m not trying to minimize the importance of what this court has done. It has exposed problems,” Murphy said. “But it’s time to ask the big question, how does this prevent Mr. Dekraai from getting a fair penalty trial?”

Goethals generally agreed with Murphy’s argument that whatever sanction he decides to impose will be limited by the law.

“I think the law is fairly clear. I agree with a lot of what Mr. Murphy has written,” Goethals said. “Where the rubber meets the road is how do the facts play into the law.”

“I think there could be a situation, and the question is whether this is one, in which chronic, abusive failure to comply would rise to the level of a constitutional violation, implicating the other party’s right to a fair trial,” Goethals said.

Although Murphy largely did not comment on evidence related to informants discussed in the hearing, he disputed in his brief Sander’s longstanding argument that there has been a wide-ranging conspiracy by the Sheriff’s Department to hide its use of informants.

He blamed the Sheriff’s Department’s failures to turn over evidence on “ignorance of the law, inadequate records management, and a lack of leadership.”

“To the extent there is evidence to support an inference of intentional suppression of evidence, such behavior appears to have been isolated to a few individuals,” Murphy wrote.

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

  • verifiedsane

    I would be absolutely shocked if Dekraai received the death penalty…1. The odds of the state ever executing anyone (including Dekraai) in Socialist California are about a trillion to one against (and I personally support the death penalty) 2. The Sheriff’s department & the DA’s office unconscionable criminal actions in this and many other cases are just appalling; this would no doubt lead to an endless series of appeals up, down, and through the court system that stretch far beyond any reasonable life span Dekraai could hope to have in prison 3. haven’t the families of these victims suffered long enough (let them begin to heal, if that’s ever possible). 4. how many more millions of tax payer dollars are going to be flushed/spent going forward with this horrible & painful public lesson in Sheriff/DA corruption and a disgusting display of prosecutorial misconduct. In my opinion, It’s now time to finally end this madness…

    • LFOldTimer

      Good points.

      Judge Goethals is a smart guy. More importantly, he’s an honest guy. He’s knows that if he sentences Dekraai to DR that the defense would mount one appeal after another – with good cause. Orange County has had enough of Dekraai and we want it put to bed. Even the victims family members would be satisfied with life w/o the possibility of parole. Most have pleaded for the good Judge to end their years of torture.

      All of this could have been easily been avoided had OCSD and OCDA not violated one law after another and told a myriad of stupid lies that buried them in public humiliation and scorn. How is it possible to have any trust or confidence in these LE agencies that are supposed to be above reproach after what we’ve seen? It matters not now what the DOJ or FBI says. Any thinking human being understand how filthy the system is from the top down in the OC. I feel like I’m living in Tijuana for God sakes. Not in the United States of America. Even the Tijuanans laugh at us. They probably tell Sandra Hutchens jokes to each other.

  • Paul Lucas

    The judge should just issue the 8 life sentences. Dekrai will never be executed. Too much baggage with this case and it will be used to delay the carrying out of the death penalty till he dies of old age. Just issue the 8 life sentences and be done with it.

  • LFOldTimer

    What good is sending Dekraai to Death Row when he will never see the end of a needle and will end up dying of natural causes? Why spend all that money for death row attorneys and all the expenses that go along with putting an inmate on Death Row? There are about 750 inmates in front of the line before Dekraai. Only 13 inmates in California have been executed since 1978. The last execution happened in 2006, over 10 years ago! lol.

    Life would be much more difficult for Dekraai in the general population. Not on death row where inmates get special privileges not afforded to the general population.

    I actually support the death penalty. If a man willfully takes the life of another human with premeditated malice I think he deserves to stand before a firing squad. Will it deter other murders? Probably not to a large degree. But the one who committed the murder would get his just due. Take a life – lose your life.

    But this is not practical under the current political regime that governs California. They’re just wasting our money by stockpiling bodies on Death Row that will never dance with the grim reaper until Mother Nature decides to shut down their vital organ function.

    The DA is pushing for the Death Penalty not in the name of justice – but only to put a feather in his own cap that he can wave it around to achieve public acclaim. Putting a man on Death Row to die of natural causes is no achievement. It is a huge waste of public funds.

    This is so silly it’s stupid.

  • RyanCantor

    “To the extent there is evidence to support an inference of intentional suppression of evidence, such behavior appears to have been isolated to a few individuals,” Murphy wrote.

    Right. A few.

    I mean, jeez, there’s over 3,000,000 people living in Orange County. Only a few of them, a very small percentage, are involved, so it’s perfectly acceptable– right?

    • LFOldTimer

      The testimony and direct evidence on record in the Dekraai case clearly shows that jail executive management not only had knowledge of the widespread cultivation and use of wired illegal informants by OCSD in the jail, it was managed and promoted by executive management. So I have no idea how Murphy could write with a straight face that it was isolated to a few individuals. The record shows it was a systemic operation. The denial of those who are sworn under oath to uphold the laws and defend the US Constitution is over the top.

      • RyanCantor

        Wait wait wait, do you mean to seriously tell me it’s the position of those involved that matters and not the number or individuals?

        No. Freaking. Way.

        Cause there were what, 1000s of federal agents involved in Watergate, right?

        • LFOldTimer

          In practical terms positions or numbers are a moot point.

          The jail informant scandal will get whitewashed like all the scandals that went before it. They might hang a couple grunt deputies out to dry for show. But none of those truly responsible for the illegal activities will be punished.

          I expect the DOJ to eventually announce that although OCSD made mistakes that their investigation revealed no laws were broken that could be proven in a court of law beyond a reasonable doubt. lol.

          Just like with Hillary Clinton. lol.

          Justice in America only applies to the peasants or to enemies of the state. If you haven’t noticed civilization in America has been on a sharp decline for the last 20 years. So none of this should come as any surprise to someone with an average IQ who keeps his eyes open.

          Keep my prediction in mind when the headlines hit the local news.