OC judge to decide whether jury can weigh death penalty for Seal Beach shooter

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An Orange County judge will rule next week whether the confessed perpetrator of the 2011 Seal Beach salon massacre could face the death sentence for the killings.

Former tugboat captain Scott Dekraai pleaded guilty three years ago to killing his ex-wife and seven other people. But his sentencing has been delayed by allegations that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office have repeatedly failed to turn over evidence that could offer Dekraai a reprieve from capital punishment.  

Judge Thomas Goethals heard closing arguments Thursday in a hearing to determine whether a jury in Dekraai's sentencing trial can consider the death penalty.

Dekraai’s defense team, led by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, has accused the sheriff’s department of running an illegal jailhouse informant program. They say jail employees have deployed informants to try to elicit incriminating statements from  high-profile inmates like Dekraai, even when their targets are already represented by attorneys. That would be a violation of a defendant's constitutional rights.

Over the last six months, Sanders has called more than 50 witnesses, most of them sheriff’s department employees, to testify about their knowledge of informant use in Orange County jails.

Sanders alleged in his closing remarks that many of those witnesses, including Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who testified before Goethals on July 3, have repeatedly lied about the program and hid evidence of it. 

"The concealment has gone on forever and we have no reason to believe that we haven’t just touched the tip of the iceberg,” Sanders said.  He said Dekraai couldn't possibly receive a fair trial if the sheriff’s department can’t be trusted to turn over evidence that might help him. 

In 2015, Goethals kicked the county district attorney's office off the Dekraai case because of its failure to turn over evidence in the case. 

Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy, who is now prosecuting Dekraai, admitted that there have been abuses but argued that a jury be allowed to determine if Dekraai should face the death penalty.

Murphy said the evidence of jailhouse misconduct presented by Sanders wasn’t relevant to Dekraai's case. 

“This is not a forum for the defense to investigate the sheriff’s department,” Murphy argued. "It’s about the prosecution of this man for murders he’s admitted to.”

Various family members of Dekraai’s eight victims have addressed the judge in recent months, most of them to rebuke the district attorney and sheriff's department for their handling of the case.

Some have asked Goethals to accept life in prison for Dekraai so that they can move on with their lives. But other family members said they wanted prosecutors to pursue the death penalty. 

The judge said he’ll rule on the case on Aug. 18. If he sides with the defense, Dekraai will be handed at least eight consecutive life sentences in prison with no possibility of parole.

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