An Orange County Superior Court judge Friday said he won’t voluntarily remove himself from overseeing a double-murder suspect’s trial as a defense attorney has requested, setting in motion a legal process that will next have a judge in another county decide whether there’s a fourth jurist switch in the case.
It likely means another two- to three-month delay in the expected trial of Daniel Patrick Wozniak, 30, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy.
That has angered family members of Wozniak’s alleged victims, 26-year- old Samuel Eliezer Herr and 23-year-old Juri Julie Kibuishi.
“It’s just constant delays,” said Herr’s father, Steve, of the defendant’s attorney. “His case is against the prosecutors, the sheriff’s investigators and now the judges.”
Wozniak’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, cited Orange County Superior Court Judge John Conley’s work with a jailhouse informant in a case from the 1980s — when Conley was a prosecutor — as the reason the judge should recuse himself.
Sanders argues in a motion summarizing why the death penalty should be dismissed against his client that the Orange County District Attorney’s Office has a checkered past dealing with jailhouse snitches going back to a case against Thomas Thompson, who was executed in 1998.
Sanders has also argued in court papers that Conley will be an “important witness” in his motion to dismiss the death penalty for Wozniak because the judge is “in the unique position of explaining how he and other members of his office responded to questions about the veracity of an informant who was a witness on multiple serious cases.”
Conley said the only specific case cited by Sanders involved William Lee Evins, a murder defendant prosecuted by Conley more than 30 years ago.
“I do not believe that a person who was aware of the facts might reasonably entertain a doubt that I would be impartial, based on a case I handled over 30 years ago, where the defendant pled guilty and there was no appeal,” Conley said.
Conley noted he worked in the District Attorney’s homicide division for less than two years in 1980 to 1982.
Conley said he was unsure how the handling of jailhouse informants factors in Wozniak’s case.
“This case has nothing to do with informants,” Steve Herr said. “It’s a moot point. Let’s get this to trial.”
An inmate did try to get information from Wozniak, but it was before he became an informant and the prosecution has no intention of using the statements in the trial, Murphy said.
If a judge from Los Angeles Superior Court or Riverside Superior Court or elsewhere denies to install a new judge on the case, then Sanders has the option of having Conley removed, but it’s a one-time chance.
There are only two other Orange County Superior Court judges left qualified to preside over capital cases — Gregg Prickett and Patrick Donahue. But Sanders has signaled he will file a motion to have all of the county’s judges recused.
If Sanders has Conley removed from the case, then he would have to file a motion showing good cause to have Prickett and Donahue recused.
Judge James Stotler had been presiding over the case, but stepped down last month when he concluded he could not guarantee he would be fair to Sanders.
The case was assigned to Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who has been hearing evidence of misuse of jailhouse informants in the case of convicted mass killer Scott Dekraai, another Sanders client.
Prosecutors, without saying why, objected to Goethals also considering the Wozniak case.
Wozniak’s alleged victims were friends. He is accused of killing Herr at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base and using the man’s cell phone to lure Kibuishi home to her Costa Mesa apartment, where he allegedly shot and dismembered her, then disposed of the body parts at the Eldorado Park Nature Center in Long Beach.
— City News Service