Adding to the recent flurry of media attention on prosecutorial misconduct in California, The Los Angeles Times ran a story yesterday – and an update today – on a highly anticipated ruling from Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals dealing with the improper use of jailhouse informants in Scott Evans Dekraai’s murder case.
The LA Times reports that today Judge Goethals removed the Orange County District Attorney’s office (OCDA) from Dekraai altogether. Dekraai’s defense attorney Scott Sanders argued that the egregious misconduct by Orange County law enforcement and prosecutors revealed in two lengthy evidentiary hearings should be remedied by not only the removal of the DA’s office but also the dismissal of the death penalty. Judge Goethals agreed with the first of Sanders’ requests in what he called “an extraordinary recusal order”, issued today:
“The District Attorney has a conflict of interest in this case which has actually deprived this defendant of due process in the past. And given this ongoing conflict, the District Attorney’s continued participation in this prosecution will likely prevent this defendant from receiving a fair trial in the future. After a period of what can at best be described as benign neglect concerning the actions of his law enforcement partners, the District Attorney cannot or will not in this case comply with the discovery orders of this court and the related constitutional and statutory mandates that guarantee this defendant’s right to due process and a fair trial. Therefore, the defendant’s motion to recuse the office of the Orange County district Attorney must be and is granted.”
This isn’t the first time Judge Goethals has ruled on the allegations of misconduct in this case. Defense attorney Sanders requested an evidentiary hearing last summer, which we wrote on here, where new evidence revealed law enforcement’s routine and illegal placement of jailhouse informants in cells with represented inmates to extract information that could then be used against the defendants at trial. Prosecutors appear to have concealed the informants’ criminal backgrounds and deals made in exchange for testimony from defense counsel in violation of Brady v. Maryland.
Originally, Judge Goethals found that the OCDA was negligent in not turning information over. Last August, The Orange County Weekly reported:
“The events associated with the current hearing do not constitute the district attorney’s finest hour. Nonetheless, after an exhaustive evaluation of the totality of this record, the court finds that the district attorney’s well-documented failures in this case, although disappointing, even disheartening to any interested member of this community, were negligent rather than malicious.”
However, additional hearings held this month have brought new and disturbing evidence to the surface.
The LA Times reports:
“As the second round of informant-related hearings drew to a close, new evidence was before the judge: a trove of documents revealing the existence of secret jail logs that showed jailers’ notes about Dekraai.
Defense attorney Sanders argued that the existence of “TRED records” (records noting the movement of inmates within the jail) and related annotations made by law enforcement challenge the OCDA’s claims that the housing assignments within the jail were merely coincidental. Judge Goethals agreed in today’s order:
“It is now apparent that the discovery situation in this case is far worse than the court previously realized. In fact, a wealth of potentially relevant discovery material–an entire computerized data base built and maintained by the Orange County Sheriff over the course of many years which is a repository for information related directly to the very issues that this court was examining as a result of the defendant’s motion–remained secret, despite numerous specific discovery orders issued by this court, until long after the initial evidentiary hearing in this case was concluded and rulings were made.”
Judge Goethal’s decision to remove the OCDA from prosecuting Dekraai affirms that the unconstitutional misuse of jailhouse informant testimony in Orange County is not the product of simple negligence or one bad apple. Indeed, the Dekraai hearings call into question the integrity of the entire Orange County District Attorney’s office.
Reacting to the ruling, Paul Wilson, the husband of one of the shooting victims, told the LA Times: “I’m embarrassed and disgusted. I hope that [Dist Atty.] Tony Raukaukas and his office are held accountable for this. Today I blame them.”