An Orange County judge on Thursday removed the Orange County District Attorney's office from continuing to prosecute the man who gunned down eight people at a Seal Beach hair salon in 2011 because of allegations that sheriff’s deputies perjured themselves and withheld information about jailhouse informants.
In an unprecedented ruling, Judge Thomas Goethals dismissed the entire DA’s office and Sheriff’s Department from the criminal case against mass murder defendant Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to the shooting at the Salon Meritage hair boutique last year.
Goethals said in his written ruling that the "District Attorney has a conflict of interest in this case which has actually deprived this defendant of due process in the past.”
He wrote that the failure to turn over jail records discovery to the defense, “can at best be described as benign neglect concerning the actions of his law enforcement partners.”
“Justice delayed has resulted in the denial of justice to all concerned here,” Goethals wrote.
Unless Orange County prosecutors appeal, the California Attorney General's Office would take over the case, with the sentencing phase to resume March 20.
Orange County prosecutors wanted the death penalty for Dekraai, 45. The defense said missteps by authorities were so egregious he should be spared from capital punishment.
Goethals' ruling keeps the death penalty on the table but leaves it up to the Attorney General to seek it.
A prolific jailhouse informant recorded conversations with Dekraai about the killings while in jail and after he had been charged and had legal representation.
“The informants can’t actively elicit statements from the defendant,” said Yale Law School research scholar Laura Fernandez. “The jailhouse informant can be a listening post but they’re not supposed to be working people over for confession.”
Dekraai’s defense attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, alleged prosecutors and law enforcement in Orange County routinely used jailhouse informants illegally and tried to hide evidence of it.
He accused three Orange County Sheriff's deputies – Ben Garcia, Seth Tunstall and William Grover – of perjuring themselves in court hearings by failing to disclose information about the use and tracking of informants in the jails.
“The statements were obtained illegally and the government spent years hiding and lying about evidence that undermined their version of events,” Sanders wrote in motion filed last week.
For that reason, he had asked the judge to dismiss the death penalty and kick the Orange County District Attorney’s office off the case. He claims the actions by police and prosecutors violated Dekraai's right to a fair trial.
Goethals ruled last August that the mistakes prosecutors made were “negligent rather than malicious,” and therefore allowed the DA’s office to pursue the death penalty.
But Sanders uncovered more evidence after that.
By court order, he got jail operations records revealing the Orange County Sheriff’s Department maintained a secret database called “TRED” on jailhouse informants.
During hearings last month, Sanders contended Sheriff’s deputies lied about not having the proper training needed to understand what types of records should have been disclosed.
Prosecutors had argued none of the actions rose to the level of denying Dekraai a fair trial.
"Even if this court were to find that a witness testified untruthfully during the hearing," senior deputy district attorney Howard Gundy wrote in a motion filed last week, "...such conduct would not prejudice his right to a fair trial."
This is the fourth criminal case in Orange County affected by the misuse of jailhouse snitches.
Paul Wilson, whose wife Christy Wilson was killed in the shooting, said his nightmare continues.
“I’m stunned, I’m angry, I’m frustrated,” he said.
Wilson said he didn’t want the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to appeal the ruling because it would hold up the penalty phase of the case.
“It’s just more of a heinous process they’re going to put us and the family through,” Wilson said.
But that didn’t change his mind about the death penalty. In fact, Wilson said he felt information about the discovery violations, the illegal use of informants and the hidden jail records don’t change the facts of the crime.
“Who cares,” he said. “The fundamentals of the case is that he killed those eight people that day and he needs to pay for that. We’re going on three years and we’re starting all over again and I don’t understand it.”
Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner said the DA’s office hasn’t made any decision on whether they will appeal or not. He said the opinions of the crime victims would be factored in.
“We care deeply for what this means to them and what they feel,” Wagner said.
Wagner said though they respect the judge’s ruling, they believe their legal position is correct and could prevail on an appeal.
Leonel Vega, 34, was convicted in 2010 of murder for a gang shooting and sentenced to life in prison. But documents and testimony later emerged about the illegal use of jailhouse informants.
Vega's defense attorney, Todd Melnik, said prosecutors failed to turn over 500 pages of notes about the informants to the defense team.
"When someone is paid for their testimony, it shows bias," Melnik said. "They're not coming forward out of the goodness of their heart."
The information left prosecutors with the choice of retrying the case without the informants' testimony and risk losing. So they struck a deal with Vega: they dismissed the murder charges and he pleaded guilty to lesser manslaughter charges. He's now serving 15 years with the possibility of getting out of prison in 2019.
Fernandez, the Yale Law School researcher, said the informant scandal in Orange County shows a complete breakdown of the criminal justice system.
Crime victims seeking justice don't get closure, the public's safety could be at risk when releasing potentially dangerous defendants, she said, and innocent people could be convicted for crimes they may not have committed.
"It turns the criminal justice system on its head," Fernandez said.
This story has been updated.