Top Prosecutors Convene in OC to Announce Trial of Golden State Killer in Sacramento

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

After the April arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected serial killer and rapist known as the “Golden State Killer,” prosecutors from six counties debated where to center their trial, including some speculation that the case could be consolidated in Orange County.

At a joint press conference in Santa Ana Tuesday morning, district attorneys from Contra Costa, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura counties appeared alongside Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to announce all the charges against DeAngelo, 72, will be prosecuted under a single case in Sacramento County.

The five DAs who appeared alongside Rackauckas, who is engaged in heated re-election battle, credited the OCDA for conducting DNA analysis that helped link four Orange County murders believed to be tied to the Golden State Killer to dozens of rapes in Northern California.

“We’ve been working decades to capture this person who has created such terror throughout the state,” said Rackauckas.

DeAngelo was arrested outside his home in Citrus Heights on April 24 after a more than four decades-long manhunt for the suspected “Golden State Killer,” who committed a series of brutal murders and rapes across California in the late 1970s and 1980s.

He now faces 26 charges: 13 felony counts of murder and 13 felony counts of kidnapping to commit robbery, with ten sentencing enhancements for use of firearms, murder during rape and murder during burglary. Those charges against DeAngelo and his trial will be filed under a single case in Sacramento County.

“For decades, he evaded justice and devastated communities across California,” said Contra Costa County DA Diana Becton. “Due to the severity of his crimes, his victims faced tremendous trauma after so much time has passed.”

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said the team of prosecutors agreed to try DeAngelo in Sacramento for a faster trial and more comprehensive prosecution effort, and because of the number of victims and their families based in Northern California.

“This case changed our community.  It’s difficult to explain if you did not live through it,” said Schubert. “The other part of it is, there are many family members [of victims] that live in Northern California.”

Asked why the press conference was held in Orange County, Rackauckas said the team has held several meetings and public announcements in other counties. Santa Barbara County DA Joyce Dudley added the prosecution team wanted to make the process “inclusive” of all six counties where the crimes occurred.

In July, a former OCDA prosecutor publicly urged Schubert not to consolidate the charges in Orange County, citing misconduct by DA prosecutors related to the illegal use of informants, according to the Orange County Register. 

Asked by a reporter whether federal and state investigations into the OCDA’s use of informants affected the decision to file charges in Sacramento, and not in Orange County, Rackauckas reiterated the reasons cited by Schubert, noting the impact of the serial murders and rapes on Sacramento County.

Prosecutors all credited Rackauckas’ office for DNA analysis that helped link the killer responsible for four murders in Orange County to the East Area Rapist – another name for the Golden State Killer – who is believed to have raped or sexually assaulted more than forty Northern California women in the late 1970s.

“Mr. Rackauckas has a nationally-known DNA unit,” said Schubert. “There is no doubt that unit, his folks and prosecutors, will continue their role in this prosecution.”

That DNA unit work is different from Rackauckas’ independent DNA collection program in Orange County, known as “spit and acquit,” which allows people arrested for lower-level crimes like petty theft and drug possession to give a DNA sample in exchange for dismissal of charges.

Critics have questioned whether a prosecutor’s office should be trusted to collect DNA evidence, pointing to the 2008 testimony of an OC Crime Lab forensic scientist who said when crime scene DNA didn’t match that of an innocent man charged with a carjacking, the head of the DA’s DNA unit asked her to change her conclusion.

As part of a task force formed two years ago to track down the Golden State Killer, the OCDA conducted analysis of DNA samples and other evidence collected statewide, which had similarities to the serial murders. That analysis did not involve any DNA samples collected locally, said DA Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder.

Schubert said at the press conference she has “full faith in the forensic DNA in this case.”

In Orange County, DeAngelo is accused of killing four people, two in Irvine and two in Dana Point.

In 1980, DeAngelo is accused of tying the wrists and ankles of Dana Point resident Patrice Harrington, 27, before raping her and leaving DNA behind. He allegedly murdered Patrice and her husband, Keith Harrington, 24, by bludgeoning them both on the head.

The following year, DeAngelo is accused of tying the wrists and ankles of 28-year-old Manuela Witthuhn of Irvine before bludgeoning her to death and stealing jewelry and other items from her home.

Five years later, in 1986, DeAngelo is accused of binding, raping and murdering 18-year-old Janelle Cruz of Irvine.

DeAngelo allegedly murdered nine others:  Claude Snelling of Visalia; Kate and Brian Maggoire of Rancho Cordova; Debra Manning, Robert Offerman, Gregory Sanchez and Cheri Domingo of Goleta; and Charlene and Lyman Smith of Ventura.

After the press conference, Rackauckas said his office will appoint a team of attorneys, investigators and staff from its DNA program to assist Sacramento County in the prosecution.

Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten said although DeAngelo is eligible for the death penalty based on the charges brought against him, because the investigation is ongoing, it would be “inappropriate and premature” to discuss whether prosecutors will pursue capital punishment.

Schubert said it’s unclear how long the investigation will take or when the case will go to trial. Prosecutors are aware of the need to move quickly, given the age of some witnesses, and how long victims and their families have waited for justice, she said.

“Mr. DeAngelo has the right to a fair trial,” Schubert said. “[But] we will try to move this case as quickly as possible.”

DeAngelo, who has yet to enter a plea, is scheduled to appear in Sacramento Superior Court Thursday.  He is represented by Sacramento County Public Defender Diane Howard.

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