After years of protracted legal proceedings, an Orange County superior court judge on Friday threw out the death penalty against Scott Dekraai, perpetrator of the county’s worst mass killing who confessed to gunning down eight people, including his ex-wife, at a Seal Beach hair salon.
Judge Thomas Goethals ruled that OC prosecutors and sheriff's deputies had violated Dekraai's constitutional rights by withholding evidence and improperly using a jailhouse informant while building the case against him following the shooting on Oct. 12, 2011.
“Ongoing prosecutorial misconduct … has effectively compromised this defendant’s right to procedural and substantive due process and prospectively to a fair penalty trial,” Goethals wrote in his ruling, part of which he delivered orally to a packed courtroom of reporters, victims' family members and other onlookers.
Goethals is expected to sentence Dekraai to life in prison without possibility of parole on Sept. 22.
Dekraai looked steadily at the judge during most of the 40-minute reading of the decision, occasionally scribbling notes. He bowed his head, shoulders slumped, when the judge referred to the “almost unbearable pain” endured by family members of the victims.
Dekraai pleaded guilty to eight counts of special circumstances murder and one count of attempted murder in 2014. But the sentencing phase of his trial had been delayed while evidence mounted that prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense team and misused a jailhouse informant to bolster their case.
Goethals wrote that following Dekraai’s guilty plea in 2014, he “deserved swift and sure punishment for the terrible crimes he committed.” But he said the court was forced to resolve “the many serious issues” raised by Dekraai’s defense team, which include repeatedly failing to comply with the judge’s orders to turn over requested records.
“To accept chronic non-compliance with such orders in any case, much less a case of this magnitude, would dangerously undermine the integrity of, and ultimately the community’s respect for, the justice system,” Goethals wrote.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement that it was “disappointed” with the ruling. “The facts in this case clearly supported a death penalty verdict. … The decision to remove the death penalty rests at the feet of Judge Goethals and nobody else.”
The OC District Attorney’s Office also said it was “disappointed” in a statement. "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,” the statement read.
Family members of victims have been split on whether Dekraai should have faced capital punishment. Paul Wilson, whose wife was one of the victims, said the judge’s decision was “100 percent correct.”
“It’s a huge relief to me,” he said.
Wilson also urged the California Attorney General, who is prosecuting the case, not to appeal the decision. “Let these families heal and not have the burden of the six years we’ve been coming to court.” Several other victims’ family members echoed the sentiment.
The attorney general's office took over prosecution of Dekraai after Judge Goethals removed the OC district attorney's office from the case in 2015 for withholding evidence. Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy said he would study the ruling before deciding whether to appeal Goethals' decision.
Paul Caouette, whose father David Caouette was killed outside of the salon, had previously spoken out in favor of pursuing the death penalty for Dekraai.
In court Friday he said, “I’m disappointed it took this long to hear he’s going to get life in prison. But I also don’t want to go to court anymore."
Evidence of prosecutorial misconduct uncovered in the Dekraai case has led dozens of other cases to be reopened, and in some cases, sentences to be overturned.
Deputy Public Defender Scott Sanders, who headed Dekraai’s defense team, said he thought hundreds of criminal cases in Orange County have likely been compromised by law enforcement’s misuse of jailhouse informants and failure to turn over evidence.
“They did this is in every case pretty much for the past 30 years,” he said. “The question is, as a community, do we care.”