Mass Murderer Gets Life in Prison; Sheriff & Prosecutors Shamed

Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, left, and Senior Deputy Public Defender Sara Ross talk to reporters after learning their client will not face the death penalty due to pervasive misconduct by county prosecutors and the sheriff’s department. (Don DeBenedictis/CNS)

SANTA ANA (CN) — Six years after committing the worst mass murder in the history of Orange County, California, Scott Evans Dekraai was sentenced Friday to life in prison without possibility of parole, in a case that laid bare widespread, illegal use of jailhouse informants in the county and disrupted its criminal-justice system.

Calling him “the face of evil in this community,” Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals sentenced Dekraai to eight consecutive life terms, one for each person he killed, and an additional seven years to life for the attempted murder of a woman who survived. He also gave Dekraai nine consecutive sentences of 25 years to life for using a gun in each crime.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’s office originally sought the death penalty, but that plan collapsed as Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders uncovered more and more information about the secret use of jailhouse snitches.

Goethals removed the district attorney from the case in March 2015, finding the office had a conflict of interest between its duty to justice and its loyalty to the sheriff’s department, which runs the jail.

Then in August this year Goethals struck the death penalty, ruling that the sheriff’s continuing inability or refusal to turn over information about the snitch program would deny the defense a fair sentencing trial.

“The criminal justice system here in Orange County has largely failed you,” Goethals told the friends and family of victims. “You deserved better.”

The California Attorney General’s Office took over prosecution after the District Attorney’s Office was recused.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement Friday that because of “the particular circumstances in this case,” he would not appeal Goethals’ striking of the death penalty.

“Our thoughts turn to the victims and families whose lives were shattered by this senseless act of inhumanity,” Becerra said.

The District Attorney’s Office said in its own statement that it had obtained Dekraai’s conviction on all counts before it was removed.

Calling Dekraai’s crimes “so wicked as to deserve the ultimate penalty,” the office said it hopes that survivors’ and victims’ families “may find some measure of relief in the knowledge that the man who callously cut short the lives of their loved ones will inevitably die in prison.”

A former tugboat captain, Dekraai, now 47, was embroiled in a custody dispute with his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, when he walked into the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach on Oct. 12, 2011, carrying three guns and wearing body armor. He killed Fournier and six other co-workers and customers and one man sitting in a car outside the salon.

He fled but was soon captured and quickly confessed. He referred to the victims other than his ex-wife as “collateral damage.” He pleaded guilty in May 2014.

In January that year, however, Sanders filed a 505-page motion laying out evidence showing that several longtime inmates in the Orange County jails were repeatedly placed in with or next to suspects in high-profile gang and murder cases, and repeatedly showed up in court to testify about what they’d learned from the suspects.

After months of evidentiary hearings, Goethals concluded that the informants often were used in violation of defendants’ constitutional rights and that information about them was improperly withheld from defense attorneys.

He strongly suggested that some sheriff’s officers and deputy district attorneys were less than truthful on the stand.

The snitch scandal resulted in new trials or new sentences in several high-profile cases in addition to Dekraai’s. News reports generally have said six or seven cases were affected. Rackauckas’s office has said only four cases were affected, but Sanders has said as many as 16 were.

The scandal prompted investigations by the DA’s office, the county grand jury, the state attorney general’s office and the U.S. Department of Justice.

About a dozen family members and co-workers of the deceased gave victim impact statements Friday, and several thanked Goethals and Sanders for the work they did bringing the scandal to light.

“This trial showed us some of the worst of the criminal justice system … lying and cheating we didn’t know existed,” one family member said.

Paul Wilson, husband of victim Christy Wilson, said the judge acted with “fairness and compassion” and praised Sanders for his “diligence in seeking the truth.”

“I only wish the DA had the same principles,” Wilson said.

The survivors told Dekraai — who was seated facing them at the end of the counsel’s table — that they hoped he would be miserable in prison.

“You are a coward,” Wilson said. “I hope you die lonely and afraid.”

As the ex-husband of a salon employee, Dekraai had known many of the survivors. During Wilson’s statement Dekraai said, “I’m sorry Paul,” but others in the audience told him to “shut up.”

Goethals allowed Dekraai to make a statement after the family members finished. He said he had been “waiting a long time for the chance to apologize” and that he wished he “could turn back the hands of time” to undo what he did.

He also apologized to his son — the subject of the custody fight in 2011 — “for failing him as a father.”

“I am 100 percent accountable for my actions,” he concluded. “I am extremely sorry.”

Goethals gave his own statement before delivering the sentence. He said in his several decades as a homicide prosecutor, defense attorney and judge, he had “never seen anything like this case.”

“On Oct. 12, 2011 … the gates of Hell flew open and you emerged as the face of evil in this community,” he told Dekraai.

He said that had the case had been different, a jury would have recommended the death penalty, “and I probably would have done exactly that.”

Goethals said he took “no joy” in removing the district attorney’s office and the death penalty from the case.

“Those rulings had nothing to do with you,” he told Dekraai.

He added: “The protection of the rule of law and the integrity of the justice system in this county required me to make the rulings that I made.”

Finally, the judge assured the survivors and family members that life without parole in California means exactly that. If the law changes, he said, DeKraai still will not be eligible for parole for 232 years. He will spend the rest of his life “in a cramped, concrete cell” in a maximum-security prison such as San Quentin or Folsom.

“Life in those prisons is the definition of hard time,” Goethals said.

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