Judge Thomas Goethals of Orange County Superior Court. Photo via muckrack.com

A judge cited prosecutorial misconduct in ruling Wednesday that the Orange County District Attorney’s Office can no longer pursue a first-degree murder charge against a man accused of causing an Anaheim crash that killed a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who recused the District Attorney’s Office from the case against mass killer Scott Dekraai due to outrageous governmental misconduct, has now found prosecutors guilty of more violations of laws governing the exchange of exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys.

This time, it’s in the case against 41-year-old Cole Wilkins, who was previously convicted of first-degree murder in connection with the 2006 crash that killed Deputy David Piquette.

Wilkins was convicted based on the “but for” legal theory, which holds a defendant responsible for the highest-degree of murder because the death would not have happened if not for the actions he or she set in motion. In this case, Wilkins was driving away from a burglary and stolen loot fell off his truck, which caused multiple collisions, including the one that killed Piquette.

Goethals again denied a motion by Wilkins’ attorney, Sara Ross, to recuse the District Attorney’s Office from the case. The judge had denied that motion previously in January, but then ordered another round of evidentiary hearings that began last month.

Goethals noted that in the January ruling, he found “serious misconduct” in the case.

“The evidence presented during the current motion did not make matters better for the People. Indeed, the facts arguably became considerably worse,” Goethals said.

“For example, Steven Beeuwsaert, a career member of the California Highway Patrol who retired as the chief of the CHP’s Southern Division, provided substantial additional support for one of the court’s prior findings when he testified that he was `100 percent’ certain that he informed the original trial prosecutor, either during the defendant’s trial or after the trial was concluded, but before the defendant was sentenced to life in prison, that misconduct had occurred during the highway patrol’s investigation of this case,” the judge said.

“In other words, the trial prosecutor was made aware by members of law enforcement and others of the critical problems with his case when he reasonably could have done something to cure them,” Goethals said.

The trial prosecutor, Mike Murray, is now an Orange County Superior Court judge. He said it would “inappropriate” for him to comment on the ruling.

At issue in the case was a police report on the series of collisions. There was dissent among CHP officials on the primary cause of the crash and who should be found criminally liable for Piquette’s death.

“In this case, the People have debated for more than 10 years whether or not the evidence which was suppressed by members of this prosecution team was, and still is, material,” Goethals said. “That debate is now over. The defendant had a right to receive the potentially exculpatory CHP opinions before his first trial. Instead, this evidence was intentionally withheld from him. When the trial prosecutor was repeatedly put on notice that there were irregularities involving the investigation of his case — twice by members of his own prosecution team — he was constitutionally obliged to address the issue. He did not.”

Prosecutors may now pursue a second-degree murder conviction. It is also possible jurors will get a chance to consider manslaughter, which does not carry a life sentence as punishment.

Although Goethals did not recuse the Orange County District Attorney’s Office from the case, he earlier recused Murray and Larry Yellin, who is also now an Orange County Superior Court judge, from prosecuting Wilkins.

“We disagree wholeheartedly with the court’s finding of facts and interpretation of the law in dismissing the first-degree murder charge,” said Michelle Van Der Linden, a spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

“We are in the process of reviewing all of our options, including appealing or moving forward to trial on a second-degree murder charge,” Van Der Linden said. “What has not changed is the OCDA’s resolve to hold Cole Wilkins accountable for the death of Los Angeles (County) sheriff’s Deputy David Piquette and depriving his wife and young family of a lifetime together.”

The defendant was sentenced in July 2008 to 26 years to life in prison. The state Supreme Court overturned that punishment and conviction.

Wilkins swiped some appliances from a home under construction in Menifee in Riverside County on July 7, 2006, and failed to tie down the stolen goods in his pickup truck in his haste to get away, according to prosecutors.

A stove tumbled off the back of the truck while he was driving on the 91 Freeway in Anaheim. Minutes later, Piquette, who was in the fast lane, swerved to avoid slamming into the stove, causing him to crash into a big-rig in the right lane, according to trial testimony.

— City News Service

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