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"Serious Misconduct" by Investigators in Seal Beach Massacre Case: Judge

Some investigators were "credibility challenged," while others "lied" during an evidentiary hearing that started in mid-March, judge says

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A judge sanctioned the Orange County District Attorney on Monday for improperly obtaining evidence against mass murderer Scott Dekraai, dealing a setback to prosecutors pursuing the death penalty for Dekraai. Vikki Vargas reports for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Monday, August 4, 2014.

    District attorney's office investigators in the 2011 Seal Beach hair salon massacre committed "serious misconduct" by using jail informants in the case against the convicted killer, an Orange County judge ruled Monday, finding that some investigators "lied" but stopping short of removing the DA's office from the case.

    Judge Thomas Goethals did not take the attorneys off the case or bar prosecutors from seeking the death penalty for Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to killing his ex-wife and seven other people, and almost killing a ninth victim, in and outside a Seal Beach beauty salon on Oct., 12, 2011.

    The penalty phase of his trial was scheduled to begin this month, but will be postponed. Attorneys will back in court Sept. 12 to discuss new dates.

    In a 12-page written ruling, Goethals said some investigators were "credibility challenged," while others "lied" during the evidentiary hearing. The judge did not name names.

    "It would have been helpful to the system to know who these people are," said Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who filed the 505-page motion earlier this year that led to the evidentiary hearing that began in mid-March.

    "We're pleased that he found there was misconduct, but we think the remedy should have been a stronger one," Sanders said.

    "I think it's clear that there's no intentional misconduct on the part of any deputy district attorneys," said Tony Rackauckas of the Orange County District Attorney's Office. "They're hardworking people, they're doing their job as best they can, but there were some errors."

    Rackauckas said he felt some of his prosecutors, particularly those assigned to gang cases, have been burdened with too much work, leading to mistakes made when turning over evidence to defense attorneys as required by law.

    "We'll have to work to reduce the caseloads," Rackauckas said.

    Rackauckas said his office has conducted further training and held seminars for his attorneys on their so-called Brady obligations.

    "But I don't think this is a training issue," Rackauckas said. "I think our training has been good."

    Prosecutors had already given up on a motion to prohibit them from using a statement made by Dekraai in which he appears to "brag" about the Salon Meritage massacre. But, without Goethals' ruling, they could have used it if Dekraai had testified on his own behalf in the penalty phase.

    Prosecutors also were scolded by Goethals for failing to share information with defense attorneys and "repeated improper attempts" to get Dekraai's psychiatric records.

    Attorneys for Dekraai claimed sheriff's deputies give jailhouse snitches easy access to inmates to pump them for information that can be used to prosecute them. In Dekraai's case, confidential informant Fernando Perez was put in a cell next to Dekraai.

    Goethals ruled that "more likely than not" Perez was not placed next to Dekraai to further a "specific plan by law enforcement."

    Dekraai, in fact, was assigned to the cell by an Orange County Health Care Agency nurse, not someone from law enforcement, Goethals said. Perez was in the neighboring cell for some weeks before the Seal Beach massacre.

    The judge, however, took issue with prosecutors for not looking into Perez's background earlier and discovering he had been actively working as a jailhouse informant. Prosecutors argued that Perez was instructed not to question Dekraai, which would have violated his constitutional rights, but to just "listen and report."

    Goethals did not buy that argument.

    "The owner of a starving dog cannot evade liability for the dog's destructive behavior inside a butcher shop by instructing that dog not to eat just before releasing him into the shop knowing at the time that it is teeming with fresh cuts of prime beef," Goethals wrote in his ruling.

    Prosecutors also erred when they filed a sworn statement that Perez was not given any "leniency or consideration" for his work on the Dekraai case, Goethals said. The judge, however, accepted Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner's testimony that he was unaware at the time he signed the declaration that Perez was a government snitch expecting favoritism on his pending sentence in a gang case.

    Goethals said in his ruling that he had to focus on whether Perez had violated Dekraai's rights and whether that merited the sanctions sought by defense attorneys. He said he allowed the evidence about the other unrelated gang cases because of the conspiracy allegations.

    "Nonetheless, after an exhaustive evaluation of the totality of this record, the court finds that the District Attorney's well-documented failures in this case, although disappointing, even disheartening, to any interested member of this community, were negligent rather than malicious."