An Orange County Superior Court judge overseeing the death penalty phase of Scott Dekraai said Friday he was considering what he once thought was “unthinkable” —dismissing the ultimate punishment for the worst mass killer in the county’s history.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who previously booted the Orange County District Attorney’s Office from the case based on governmental misconduct in the handling of jailhouse informants, ordered a third round of evidentiary hearings next month based on new corruption claims.
Goethals said he was motivated by new allegations from Dekraai’s attorney, Scott Sanders as well as by comments from a family member of two of Dekraai’s victims who expressed her displeasure with prosecutors’ continued efforts to put the defendant on death row.
At the last hearing on March 30, Bethany Webb scolded prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office, who took over the case when the district attorney was recused, for continuing to push for the death penalty.
“They are not doing this for my family,” Webb said last month. “They are doing this to my family.”
Goethals said that particular comment has been “ringing” in his mind since then. He said he would like to hear from victims’ loved ones in a full- day hearing to help inform his ruling based on the next round of evidentiary hearings.
Sanders has continually asked Goethals to dismiss the death penalty as an option based on the corruption claims, and he has renewed that effort based on new evidence about how sheriff’s officials used informants in the jails to collect evidence.
Goethals noted that appellate justices have upheld his finding that the constitutional rights of some defendants were violated in those efforts.
“That ruling was not contested — it is final, the law of the case,” Goethals said. “The sheriff (Sandra Hutchens) can say what she wants and go on ignoring that fact to her political advantage, but that’s what happened.”
Goethals said he never came close to giving Dekraai a pass on the death penalty in the past because the defendant’s crimes “cries out for a jury to” consider the ultimate punishment.
He said to dismiss the death penalty, which would guarantee Dekraai would “die in prison” because he has already pleaded guilty and would be sentenced to eight consecutive terms of life without parole, would be an “extraordinary step.”
Until recently, Goethals said, “that was not a particularly tenable request,” and he cited the ruling in the Orange County jailhouse beating death of a defendant charged with possession of child pornography as placing the bar too high for that sanction.
“I haven’t made up my mind on this topic,” Goethals said. “But what previously was unthinkable is no longer unthinkable.”
Goethals referred to dismissal of the death penalty as a punishment for governmental misconduct as the “nuclear option.”
Goethals cited several issues that will be a focus of the next round of evidentiary hearings.
One involves an alleged 5 1/2-month gap in a “special handling log” kept by jailhouse deputies in the informant program.
Other allegations from Sanders that will be considered are that sheriff’s officials shredded documents after getting permission from the county board to change its policies retaining information.
Goethals also wants to know what happened when deputies shut down the special handling logs in 2013 as the Dekraai corruption claims heated up. The judge wants to know if a new log was created. There was another alleged “gap” in information in 2014 and there appear to be missing records of the movements of some informants in the jail, the judge said.
“I have no idea if that’s true, but I’m curious,” Goethals said.
Prosecutor Mike Murphy of the Attorney General’s Office had wanted to pass along some evidence of his agency’s investigation of the corruption claims to Sanders, but attorneys for the county have asserted an attorney-client privilege blocking it. Goethals was disappointed the privilege was invoked Friday, but said his hands were tied by legal precedent.
Paul Wilson, the widower of Dekraai victim, Christy Wilson, told Goethals Friday that he was “appalled and devastated” that prosecutors continue to want to put Dekraai on death row. Wilson is not opposed to the death penalty in principle, but he just wants the legal proceedings to end so his family can gain “closure,” he said.
Dekraai also killed his ex-wife, 48-year-old Michelle Marie Fournier, who was the first victim on Oct. 12, 2011 at a beauty salon at 500 Pacific Coast Highway. Wilson was the next victim, followed by the shop’s owner, 62- year-old Randy Lee Fannin.
Also killed in the salon were Victoria Ann Buzzo, 54, Lucia Berniece Kondas, 65, Laura Lee Elody, 46, and Michele Dashbach Fast, 47. After leaving the salon, Dekraai gunned down his last victim, 64-year-old David Caouette, as the victim sat in his Range Rover, parked next to the gunman’s vehicle.
Hattie Stretz, 77, survived the bloodbath.
— City News Service
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