POLITICS
08/18/2017 01:04 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2017

Judge Drops Death Penalty Option In Mass Murder Case Tainted By Misconduct

It's a rare move and leaves Scott Dekraai likely facing eight consecutive life sentences.
Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Reuters

LOS ANGELES ― Scott Dekraai, a 47-year-old man who admitted to killing eight people at a beauty salon in the worst mass shooting in Orange County, California, history, will not face execution for his crimes because of law enforcement misconduct linked to a jail informant program, a judge ruled Friday.

In a rare move, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals excluded the death penalty as a punishment option. The ruling comes after the judge held weeks of hearings centered on whether the Orange County Sheriff’s Department could be trusted to turn over all records in the case.

It’s now expected that next month Goethals will sentence Dekraai to eight consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole ― unless the California Attorney General’s office files a challenge to the ruling with the 4th District Court of Appeal.

“This is not a punitive sanction,” Goethals said in court Friday. “Rather it is a remedial sanction necessitated by the ongoing prosecutorial misconduct.”

Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy ― the prosecutor who took over the Dekraai case after Goethals recused the Orange County District Attorney’s office due to misconduct ― had argued that the judge should keep the death penalty on the table. Murphy said that Goethals had already doled out the appropriate sanctions in removing the district attorney’s office from the case and that excluding the death penalty would amount to an additional, unnecessary sanction. Ultimately, Goethals disagreed.

Reading from his ruling, the judge said that compliance by prosecutors and other law enforcement officers with his lawful court orders to turn over evidence in the Dekraai case “remains an elusive goal” and that ignoring those violations would be “unconscionable.”

“This court believes that the truth is the truth,” Goethals said. “Truth is not the product of any political debate.”

The judge’s ruling is extraordinary in the case of a mass murderer. Dekraai almost immediately confessed to police about his role in the 2011 killing. He formally pleaded guilty to the crimes in 2014. It appeared Dekraai would swiftly be dispatched to San Quentin’s death row.

But the case against him has been marred by allegations of egregious government malfeasance. His sentencing has remained in limbo amid ongoing allegations that county prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies improperly used a jailhouse informant in his case and then hid key evidence about that for years.

“We are disappointed by today’s ruling,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement on Friday. “The facts in this case clearly supported a death penalty verdict. Notwithstanding the issues that were raised by the Court’s ruling, we believe the defendant would have received a fair trial during the penalty phase of the criminal proceedings. The decision to remove the death penalty rests at the feet of Judge Geothals [sic] and nobody else.”

Asked by HuffPost if Goethals’ decision would be appealed, the California Attorney General’s office said the ruling is being reviewed and declined to comment further.

Just days after the 2011 shooting, county law enforcement moved Dekraai, then held in a local jail, next to a prolific jailhouse informant, Fernando Perez. Perez questioned Dekraai about his case. Then prosecutors and law enforcement officers interviewed Perez, and a recording device was placed in Dekraai’s cell, capturing more conversations between the pair.

While it is generally legal for law enforcement authorities to use informants to help bolster cases, Dekraai’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, has argued that in the particular circumstances, the move was a violation of his client’s constitutional rights. That’s because it is illegal for government agents, including informants, to question or coerce statements out of a defendant who has been formally charged with crimes and is already represented by a lawyer, as Dekraai was. Prosecutors contended there was no intentional violation because they did not instruct Perez to question Dekraai.

While the contents of the conversations between Dekraai and Perez remain sealed, court records have shown that the informant did probe Dekraai about his crimes.

As Sanders requested more information about the contacts between the two men, he discovered that Perez had also been used as an informant against another one of his clients, Daniel Wozniak. Wozniak was sentenced to death last year for the killing of two of his friends in an attempt to fund his wedding.

Prosecutors said it was simply a coincidence that the same informant was used against two of Sanders’ most high-profile clients, but the public defender didn’t believe that. Sanders pushed to uncover what would turn out to be tens of thousands of records about the use of informants inside county jails by prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies.

In a 505-page motion filed in 2014, Sanders argued that hundreds of pages of notes written by Perez and a second informant, Oscar Moriel, demonstrated the existence of an illegal jailhouse snitch program in which sheriff’s deputies allegedly planted informants next to targeted inmates and directed them to poke around for incriminating evidence to help bolster prosecutors’ cases. Sanders claimed that prosecutors would then present the damning evidence gleaned by the informants in court while they withheld other evidence that could have been beneficial to defendants ― a violation of the right to due process.

Additional evidence of the informant program came to light over the course of four years and three evidentiary hearings. Sanders’ efforts would ultimately reveal a disturbing trove of long-hidden records: a 25-year-old computerized system that detailed critical information about jail inmates and informants; more than four years of logs created by deputies who managed the informants, which was deleted in 2013 just days before Judge Goethals issued an order requiring its disclosure; and internal sheriff’s department memos, including one boasting of “hundreds of informants.” Altogether, the records detailed a robust and well-established practice of cultivating and utilizing jailhouse informants to glean incriminating evidence from unsuspecting defendants.

Nonetheless, the sheriff’s department continues to deny a jail informant program exists. In recent hearings, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and members of her command and management staff suggested that if there was any informant-related misconduct in the jails by deputies, it was the work of just a handful of rogue officers operating independently of their orders. Three deputies refused to testify at the hearings, invoking their Fifth Amendment right to silence.

Leaders of the sheriff’s department have also said they’ve made changes to how deputies handle inmates in the jail. The district attorney’s office has maintained that any misconduct by county prosecutors was unintentional and that the scandal has been overblown.

An Orange County grand jury report, issued this July, largely lined up with both agencies’ sentiments, calling the scandal a “myth” perpetuated by the media.

But legal experts blasted the grand jury’s report and said its findings are just more proof that an independent probe is desperately needed. Goethals took a swipe at the report himself on Friday, saying that “this well-established program is not a myth, nor is it any sort of a fairy tale.”

The 4th District Court of Appeal found last year that the cheating by prosecutors and sheriff’s officials in the county was very real and that the “magnitude of the systemic problems cannot be overlooked.” Afterward, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into the official use of jail informants in Orange County.

The scandal had already led to the unraveling of more than a dozen murder, attempted murder and felony assault cases in the county and threatens to upend countless more. But the ruling in Dekraai’s case on Friday is arguably the most crushing defeat that the beleaguered district attorney’s office has faced since the scandal broke.

It remains unclear exactly how many cases may have been tainted by the illegal use of an informant. Sanders has argued that every case involving a jailhouse informant in Orange County over the last 30 years should be re-examined.

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