Attorneys for the worst mass killer in Orange County history argue that the judge who kicked the Orange County District Attorney’s Office off the case had the discretion to do so.
The Attorney General’s Office, which has taken over the case against Scott Evans Dekraai since Judge Thomas Goethals removed the District Attorney’s Office, appealed that ruling and argued in its opening brief in July that Goethals overstepped his authority.
The Orange County Public Defender’s Office argued Goethals had the discretion to boot the District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting Dekraai, who has pleaded guilty to eight murders and an attempted murder in and around a Seal Beach beauty salon and now faces the death penalty.
“Judge Goethals recused the Orange County District Attorney because he correctly determined, after reading thousands of pages of briefs, reviewing tens of thousands of pages of exhibits, and listening to the testimony of 37 witnesses over several months, that the Orange County District Attorney had a conflict of interest on this case and that conflict rendered it unlikely (Dekraai) would receive a fair trial,” the Public Defender’s Office writes in its response to the Attorney General.
The only reason Goethals’ ruling could be overturned is if it were considered “arbitrary or capricious,” the Public Defender’s Office argued in the brief filed Thursday.
Instead, the Public Defender’s Office argued, the ruling was “the product of careful consideration and deliberation.”
The Public Defender’s Office also argued that prosecutors failed to respond to multiple red flags of misconduct in the way sheriff’s officials handled jailhouse informants in the case against Dekraai and several other defendants.
The brief echoes Goethals’ ruling that the District Attorney’s Office cannot be trusted to prosecute Dekraai fairly because it was too invested in trying to protect its law enforcement partner.
The Attorney General’s Office argued that the bar to recuse prosecutors is much higher than the standard Goethals cited.
“The law is resoundingly clear that prosecutorial misconduct, even egregious misconduct, cannot form the basis to recuse a district attorney,” the Attorney General’s Office argues in its brief.
“Moreover, even if it could be an appropriate remedy for prosecutorial misconduct, recusing the OCDA will not ameliorate the systemic problems within the (Orange County Sheriff’s Department) identified by (Goethals) and, more importantly, have no bearing on Dekraai receiving a fair trial in this case.”
At issue in the case against Dekraai, who is facing the death penalty, is the placement of an informant — Fernando Perez — next to the defendant in Orange County Jail. Perez struck up a friendship with Dekraai, prompting authorities to secretly wire his jail cell and catch him bragging about the shootings.
Orange County District Attorney’s Office prosecutors planned to use the statements against Dekraai in the penalty phase of his murder trial. Dekraai’s attorneys, however, argued that Perez was questioning Dekraai after he had already been represented by a lawyer, which is a violation of his constitutional rights.
Orange County prosecutors capitulated the point during an evidentiary hearing on the issue last year and agreed not to use the statements in the penalty phase.
Goethals, in August 2014, found there was some misconduct, but stopped short of booting Rackauckas’ office from the case and dismissing the death penalty option.
When new records that logged the placement of inmates in Orange County Jail cells surfaced it touched off another round of evidentiary hearings that led Goethals to recuse Rackauckas’ office this March.
State prosecutors argued that even if Goethals’ reasoning was correct it still shouldn’t trigger recusal because the problem has already been fixed by barring prosecutors from using Dekraai’s comments to Perez in the penalty phase and because jurors will only hear about the crime and how the shootings affected the families of the victims.
Dekraai, 45, pleaded guilty last year to killing his ex-wife and seven other people in and around Salon Meritage on Oct. 12, 2011.
— City News Service