SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – Nearly six years after the worst mass murder in Orange County, California, history, a state court judge ruled Friday that convicted killer Scott Dekraai cannot be sentenced to death because law enforcement officials repeatedly withheld information about their pervasive, illegal use of informants in county jails.
In a blistering ruling, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said it would “be unconscionable, perhaps even cowardly” for him to ignore “the continuous course of misconduct” carried out by the county sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office in not fully obeying his discovery orders concerning jailhouse informants.
Therefore, he said, he was compelled “to impose a sanction that not long ago would have been unthinkable” – striking the death penalty from the case.
Goethals’ decision caps what became a wide-ranging scandal over jailhouse informants in Orange County that attracted national attention.
Unless an appellate court reverses the ruling, Dekraai will be sentenced Sept. 22 to eight consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
“The court finds that the prosecution team is unable and/or unwilling to comply fully with these lawful orders that remain in full force and effect. As a result, this court now exercises its discretion to strike the death penalty as a potential punishment for this defendant, despite the horrendous nature of his crimes,” Goethals ruled.
“This is not a punitive sanction designed to punish the prosecution team for past misconduct. Rather, it is a remedial sanction necessitated by the ongoing prosecutorial misconduct related to discovery proceedings which has effectively compromised this defendant’s right to procedural and substantive due process and prospectively to a fair penalty trial.”
Deputy Attorney General Michael T. Murphy said his office would study Goethals’ 19-page ruling before deciding whether to ask the Fourth Appellate District to intervene.
But in formal statements, both the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department said they are disappointed by the decision.
“Whether some members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department failed to produce tangential information in a timely manner has nothing to do with what Dekraai did and the fact that Dekraai deserves the death penalty,” the DA’s office said.
In its statement, the sheriff’s department said it believed Dekraai would have received a fair trial on sentencing “notwithstanding the issues that were raised by the court’s ruling.
“The decision to remove the death penalty rests at the feet of Judge Geothals and nobody else,” the department added.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders said he believes Goethals made the right decision.
“To make this ruling took some judicial courage,” he said.
Sanders said he believes there are hundreds of other cases in the county dating back as far as 30 years in which informants were used illegally.
A number of family members of victims reportedly expressed relief Friday that the six-year-old prosecution may be nearly done. Several had opposed the death penalty from the beginning, while others have urged Dekraai’s execution.
Paul Caouette, who has favored the death penalty, said he has “mixed feelings” about Goethals’ decision but said it “provides some kind of closure.”
Sanders said the families’ relief “was the best news.”
Dekraai shot his ex-wife and seven others to death and wounded a ninth person in a Seal Beach beauty salon in October 2011. Quickly captured, he just as quickly confessed. He pleaded guilty to the crimes in May 2014.
But that same year, an investigation by his attorney Sanders uncovered that jailers from the sheriff’s department, apparently working with deputy district attorneys, were using confidential informants to secretly question Dekraai and other high-profile suspects.
Sanders argued the informant program violated the suspects’ rights under Massiah v. United States not to be questioned without their attorneys, while prosecutors’ failure to disclose information about the informants violated their rights to all exculpatory material under Brady v. Maryland.
Over a series of months-long evidentiary hearings, Sanders convinced the judge that the sheriff had been running the program for years without the court’s or the defense bar’s knowledge. Goethals eventually ordered District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’s office removed from the Dekraai case.
The resulting scandal upended convictions or sentences in at least six other serious cases and launched investigations by the U.S. Justice Department, the state attorney general’s office, the county grand jury and the district attorney’s office itself.
The judge’s new ruling came in response to Sanders’ renewed motion to drop the death penalty.
After three months of hearings, including about 50 witnesses, revealed the sheriff’s department was still not turning over all the information it had. The very first witness, a sheriff’s lieutenant, announced he’d come across 68 bankers’ boxes of potentially related documents only recently.
In his decision Friday, Goethals noted that the truth “does not present itself in alternative versions.” He ticked off about a dozen facts about the informant program and law enforcement’s struggles with discovery, beginning each with the phrase “the truth is.”
He quoted Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ statement that “over a course of years” deputies inside the jails “intentionally moved working confidential informants … to elicit incriminating statements from targeted defendants.”
He quoted a district attorney press release stating that “jail special handling [sheriff’s] deputies cultivated and utilized a group of informers” at least during the years 2008 to 2013.
He found that the sheriff’s department responded to discovery orders “with such indolence and obfuscation that this court has lost confidence that it can ever secure compliance from the prosecution team with those orders.”
The result, Goethals said, is that he cannot ensure that Dekraai would receive a fair trial in front of a jury deciding between life and death.
“If this case had been prosecuted from the outset within the most fundamental parameters of prosecutorial propriety, this defendant would likely today be living alongside other convicted killers on California’s death row in the state prison at San Quentin,” Goethals wrote.
“Instead, this case hardly seems closer to resolution this morning than it did on that day more than five years ago when it arrived in this courtroom, as prosecution team compliance with this court’s outstanding discovery orders remains an elusive goal.”
The judge ordered the probation department to prepare a presentencing report and set the sentencing hearing for Sept. 22.