Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to eight murders and one attempted murder for a 2011 massacre at a Seal Beach beauty salon that made him the worst mass killer in Orange County’s history, will not face the death penalty for his crimes, a judge ruled Friday.
The ruling by Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who already had recused the Orange County District Attorney’s Office from the case, is the result of a third round of evidentiary hearings stemming from widespread abuses of a jailhouse informant program.
The 47-year-old former tugboat crewman is scheduled to be formally sentenced on Sept. 22 to eight consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. That hearing, however, could be delayed if the California Attorney General’s Office asks the Fourth District Court of Appeal to review the judge’s ruling.
“Many (victims’ family members) have asked this court to do what little it can to mitigate their suffering by imposing the eight consecutive sentences of life without parole that would end this case now and ensure that this defendant dies a forgotten man in some obscure maximum-security prison,” Goethals noted.
In explaining his decision, the judge said: “The court finds that the prosecution team is unable and/or unwilling to comply fully with these lawful (discovery) orders that remain in full force and effect. As a result, this court now exercises discretion to strike the death penalty as a potential punishment for this defendant, despite the horrific nature of his crimes.”
Paul Caouette, whose father was the last victim shot by Dekraai, said outside the courtroom that although he was in favor of the death penalty, the judge’s ruling “provides some kind of closure.”
“I definitely have mixed feelings,” he said. “I definitely want it over with, but I know what the law is.”
He called the lengthy delays in the case “six years of wasted time.”
Caouette was in the minority of death penalty supporters among the victims’ families.
Bethany Webb, the sister of Dekraai victim Laura Webb Elody, said 90 to 95 percent of the victims’ families wanted the attorney general to stop pursuing the ultimate punishment for Dekraai.
“The grown-up in the room did the right thing,” Webb said of the judge’s ruling.
Paul Wilson, whose wife, Christy, was among the first to be killed, had long implored prosecutors to give up the death penalty for Dekraai, even though he supports capital punishment in principle.
“I’m just happy,” he said of the judge’s ruling. “There’s this sense of relief. Like it’s 100 pounds off my shoulders. It’s been grinding and grinding on me. I won’t have to deal with that feeling any longer.”
Wilson said he hopes prosecutors do not appeal, and he lashed out at the District Attorney’s Office and sheriff.
“Today, we found out we have a District Attorney incapable of doing his job and a sheriff incapable of doing her job,” Wilson said. “It’s time for change.”
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders told reporters that Goethals’ ruling took “extraordinary judicial courage” and said he was heartened by the relief expressed by the victims’ families.
“If they feel relieved, that’s the best news of the day,” he said, adding that Dekraai also is “relieved.”
“He knows what … ridiculous pain he’s put them through,” Sanders said.
The defense attorney said he would never seek to have his client’s May 2, 2014, guilty plea withdrawn based on the ongoing corruption allegations.
“It would really be a fraud to withdraw the plea,” Sanders said. “I don’t think he’d (Dekraai) ever want us to withdraw the plea.”
Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is running to unseat District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, called on the county’s top prosecutor and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to resign.
“We need to appoint caretakers who can follow the law,” Spitzer said.
Goethals’ findings in the evidentiary hearing, of chronic failures to turn over evidence and misuse of informants, “means they are incompetent and cannot hold office,” Spitzer said. “Today was not about the death penalty for Scott Dekraai. It was about the sanctity of the system… (Goethals) said (the prosecution team) cannot be trusted. That means they cheated and they got caught.”
Hutchens said she was “disappointed in Supervisor Spitzer’s decision to politically grandstand to further his personal ambitions. Out of respect to the victims and family members, I will not comment on his thoughtless assertion any further.”
Rackauckas’ chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder, also accused Spitzer of grandstanding.
“It’s a sad day for citizens of Orange County and crime victims,” Schroeder said. “It’s not a day for any politician to grandstand to quench his ambitions.”
In prior rulings, Goethals punished prosecutors for violations regarding the use of informants and the failure to exchange evidence with defense attorneys by limiting what evidence they could use in the penalty phase of the trial.
Goethals heard arguments last week from a prosecutor from the Attorney General’s Office, which took over the case when the District Attorney’s Office was recused, as well as Dekraai’s attorneys.
Sanders argued that his client cannot trust the county to turn over all favorable evidence, so he could never be sure he’ll ever get a fair hearing. But Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy argued that none of the corruption involving the use of confidential informants in the jail precluded Dekraai from getting a fair hearing in the penalty phase of his trial.
The allegations of misconduct in the Dekraai case date back to January 2014, when his attorneys filed a 500-plus-page motion alleging widespread misconduct in the use of jailhouse informants to obtain information to help investigators.
Sanders argued that the government violated his client’s constitutional rights by having informant Fernando Perez put in a cell next to Dekraai to get information from the defendant when he was already represented by an attorney, which is illegal.
Goethals found the placement of Perez was a coincidence based on a nurse’s recommendation. Sanders continued to argue last week that it was a conspiracy to violate his client’s rights.
Perez’s notes to his handlers led prosecutors to get Dekraai’s cell wired, and he made what many sources have characterized as insensitive and callous comments about the massacre at the Seal Beach beauty salon.
Prosecutors wanted to use the comments in the death penalty phase of the trial, but Goethals forbade it.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department released a statement in response to Goethals’ ruling.
“We are disappointed by today’s ruling. The facts in this case clearly supported a death penalty verdict,” the statement said. “On October 12, 2011, Scott Dekraai executed and confessed to the deadliest shooting in the history of Orange County, long before he was booked into the Orange County Jail. Notwithstanding the issues that were raised by the court’s ruling, we believe the defendant would have received a fair trial during the penalty phase of the criminal proceedings. The decision to remove the death penalty rests at the feet of Judge Goethals and nobody else.”
Sanders slammed the sheriff’s statement.
“That’s a testament to the fact that they will never accept responsibility,” he said. “That’s a terrible testament to where we’re at as a justice system. It’s really disheartening.”
Dekraai’s ex-wife, 48-year-old Michelle Marie Fournier, was the first victim that the then-42-year-old gunman killed on Oct. 12, 2011, at the Salon Meritage at 500 Pacific Coast Highway, where she worked. The couple had been locked in a bitter child custody dispute.
Also slain in the salon were the shop’s owner, 62-year-old Randy Lee Fannin, Elody, 46, Wilson, 47, Victoria Ann Buzzo, 54, Lucia Berniece Kondas, 65, 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, now 79, survived the bloodbath.
–City News Service