SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) - A state court judge has ruled against the Orange County District Attorney's Office for appearing to silence and intimidate a state court judge for finding prosecutorial misconduct in a high-profile mass murder case.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard King denied a motion to disqualify Judge Thomas Goethals from hearing criminal cases under the Separation of Powers Doctrine of the U.S. and California Constitutions.
In his Dec. 3 order, Judge Richard King said that the "blanket papering" of Judge Goethals "strongly suggests" that prosecutors had disqualified the judge from hearing 46 of 49 murder cases since February 2014 after he removed 250 Orange County prosecutors from a death penalty case.
"It also has the appearance of attempting to intimidate, punish, and/or silence Judge Goethals, and to send a warning to the other local judges that similar rulings will produce a similar fate," King wrote.
King said the District Attorney's Office conduct stems from Goethals' rulings in three cases.
In People v. Dekraai, Goethals found evidence of official and prosecutor misconduct in the case of mass murderer Scott Dekraai, who shot his ex-wife and seven others at a Seal Beach, California, beauty salon in 2011.
In two Mexican Mafia gang cases, Goethals removed Deputy District Attorney Erik Petersen because of a failure to turn over exculpatory evidence to defense, according to the order. Petersen resigned in September, the Orange County Register reported.
The ruling comes after a group of prosecutors and professors last month asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Orange County district attorney's secret practice of planting jailhouse informants. It was the exposure of an informant in the Dekraai case that caused the delays in the penalty phase and led Goethals to assign it to California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
In his 46-page opinion, King denied Orange County prosecutors' motion to disqualify Goethals from the murder case People v. Tejeda. In that case, the defendant has been charged with stabbing to death a 51-year-old man in a Huntington Beach apartment.
From a period beginning on Dec. 7, 2010, and ending on Feb. 24, 2014, the court assigned Goethals 35 murder cases and prosecutors disqualified him once, King noted.
But from February 2014 to September 2015, prosecutors disqualified Goethals from 46 of the 49 cases he was assigned, King said.
"This disparity is not coincidental," the judge wrote.
The DA's actions have "substantially disrupted the orderly administration of criminal justice" in a county that is the sixth-largest in the United States, the judge said.
The "effect of the People's 'blanket' disqualification of Judge Goethals has caused murder cases and other felony cases to languish unnecessarily. It has caused a strain in misdemeanor operations. As a result, the court's responsibility to ensure the orderly administration of justice has been severely impacted," King wrote.
Noting that doing "nothing is not an option," King called "offensive" the notion that the court could simply bar Goethals from hearing murder cases.
"To allow a party to manipulate the court into removing a judge from hearing certain criminal cases - when that judge, in the performance of his judicial duties, has conducted a hearing which exposed that same party's misconduct - not only goes against the very cornerstone of our society: the rule of law, but would be a concession against judicial independence," King wrote.
Senior Assistant District Attorney Michael Lubinski said that he disagreed with the court's opinion and would appeal, adding that the DA's office believed it had a "right to exercise a single peremptory challenge" to judges it believes are prejudiced.
Under California Code of Civil Procedure, the office does not have to explain "reasons for peremptorily challenging a judge," Lubinski said in a written statement. "Nor may a court inquire into those reasons. It requires only that the party have a good-faith belief that prejudice exists."
Lubinski also denied that his office was attempting to silence Goethals, noting that prosecutors have "consistently litigated their cases" before the judge.
"In 2015, prosecutors took dozens of cases to Judge Goethals; 14 went to jury trial, including one attempted murder and two murder cases," Lubinski said.
The Orange County DA's office "continues to authorize its attorneys to exercise the same right enjoyed by every attorney in the state of California. Namely, to individually determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether he or she believes he or she can get a fair trial before any assigned judge," Lubinski added.