It took some time, but Judge Thomas M. Goethals in Orange County finally resolved a defense motion to preclude capital punishment against the defendant in People v. Dekraai. James Queally of the LA Times put it well: “The county’s beleaguered law enforcement leaders received their most stinging rebuke yet on Friday, when Superior Court Judge  Goethals blocked prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty against [Dekraai] . . . .” The Orange County Snitch Scandal—first uncovered by Mr. Dekraai’s defense team—has been unfolding for years now, as we most recently explored in May. This latest development is a rare but thoroughly-justified step towards reinforcing the rule of law. After all, the Orange County District Attorney and the Sheriff’s Department have been intransigent, unwilling both to accept responsibility and to disclose information the judge has ordered them to turn over. As Queally succinctly explains: “In evidentiary hearings that have dragged on for years, sheriff’s officials repeatedly told the judge there were no more records to be found—only for other material to be subsequently discovered.”
Although this decision is not the end of the snitch saga, it is a milestone. At the most recent hearing, Judge Goethals explained how the decision he reached to take the death penalty off of the table for Dekraai once seemed like an inconceivable outcome: “The judge added it would have been ‘unconscionable and perhaps even cowardly’ not to sanction local prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies for improperly using jailhouse informants and hiding evidence, causing him to consider a decision that had once been ‘unthinkable.’” Remarkably, the State, through the Attorney General’s office, is considering whether to appeal the ruling. Some of the victims’ family members urged the prosecution to let Goethals’s decision at long last bring some closure to the case. For example, Bethany Webb, whose sister was killed by Dekraai, said: “I honor this judge and what it took to do an unpopular thing in Orange County, but the right thing for everyone involved here.”
If you are wondering whether the law enforcement officials responsible for this debacle showed any sign of introspection or regret, you have not been following the scandal closely. A tired play from the tattered “Anything But Accountability” playbook was called yet again. R. Scott Moxley’s commentary captures the gist: “Meanwhile, the sheriff and DA issued lame press releases stating their disappointment and, as usual, pretending that the judge hadn’t witnessed four years of remorseless perjury and evidence hiding by badged individuals.” The statement from Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’s office was nothing short of pathetic, pointing the finger only at the Sheriff’s Department and disclaiming that due process has anything to do with criminal justice: “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.” To the contrary, law enforcement’s failure to respect the Constitution has everything to do with the legitimacy of our criminal justice system and whether we should entrust to it the enormous responsibility of capital punishment. Judge Goethals’s well-considered ruling makes that clear, and it can be found here.