The man who pleaded guilty to Orange County's worst mass killing might still face the death penalty for the shooting deaths of eight people in a hair salon, but a judge Thursday removed the county prosecutor's office from the case just weeks before the start of the penalty phase.
The decision to place the California Attorney General office in charge of the case came during a lengthy hearing Thursday on whether Scott Evans Dekraai might still face the death penalty for the 2011 Seal Beach slayings and if the county prosecutor should be removed from his case on grounds that his rights were violated by the use of jailhouse snitches. The death penalty option will still be on the table when a jury convenes March 30 to consider Dekraai's fate, and the OC District Attorney's Office has until March 20 to appeal the ruling.
"The next time I would like to see his face is in the obituary, saying, 'A forgotten, long-ago mass murderer died neglected and forgotten about in his cell," said Bethany Webb, whose sister was killed and mother was wounded in the shooting.
Paul Wilson, whose wife was killed in the shooting, was stunned.
"My nightmare continues," he said.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who has already ruled that prosecutors cannot use damning statements Dekraai made to a jailhouse informant during the penalty phase of his trial, reprimanded the OC DA's office based on allegations that some law enforcement officials lied under oath during previous hearings. Goethals called the misconduct accusations a conflict of interest and a serious case involving serious issues.
"This performance has denied the people of Orange County and the community of Seal Beach of timely resolution, which all parties deserve," Goethals said.
He called the DA's actions a "comedy of errors," but said there was "nothing funny" about how they affect the case. Prosecutors argued that even if the allegations are true, the remedies sought -- tabling the death penalty, removal of the DA's office -- are not allowed.
"It's a very rare thing for a prosecutor's office to be recused," said Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Dan Wagner. "It's a high standard and, respectfully, we disagree that the defense has met that standard."
A representative from the California Attorney General Office at the hearing said the office will need time to determine whether they are prepared to move forward on March 30.
In recent court filings, Dekraai's attorney, Scott Sanders of the Orange County Public Defender's Office, alleges his client cannot get a fair hearing during the penalty phase.
"There is nothing more dangerous to the criminal justice system than an officer who will lie," Sanders said at Thursday's hearing.
Particularly at issue is whether some investigators lied about how government informant Fernando Perez was placed in a cell next to Dekraai, where Perez befriended him and heard him "brag" about the Oct. 12, 2011, massacre in and around a Seal Beach beauty salon.
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In August, Goethals ruled that jurors in the penalty phase will not hear those statements. It was the only sanction Goethals allowed as he ruled that serious misconduct occurred in the handling of jailhouse informants in the case, but he chalked it up more to negligence than a conspiracy, as Sanders has alleged.
After that ruling, however, Sanders became aware of jail records that he argues contradicts evidence in the first round of evidentiary hearings that indicated a nurse put Perez next to Dekraai's cell, not sheriff's officials seeking to gather more damning evidence against the defendant. That could have been a violation of his constitutional rights since he was represented by an attorney.
Sanders has also alleged that sheriff's officials would place some informants into disciplinary isolation -- even though they had done nothing to merit any punishment -- so they could be with other inmates and seek more evidence against them. He has also alleged that some informants spur their targets to confess or face the wrath of the Mexican Mafia.
Deputy Seth Tunstall hired a prominent defense attorney to be with him as he testified in the hearings, consulting him once as Sanders pressed him on a seeming contradiction between a statement he made regarding his involvement in a program for jailhouse snitches during a civil suit and his testimony in the Dekraai case.
"It is now clear that the (Sheriff's Department) long ago created an informant operation designed to capture substantial information about inmates, and in particular from high-profile defendants like Scott Dekraai," Sanders wrote in court papers. "However, as has also been made increasingly clear, the members of that unit who have managed that operation have dedicated themselves to hiding evidence that would be helpful to Dekraai -- and to an extraordinary level. Additionally, the District Attorney's Office has taken no action to correct the systematic withholding of evidence, and lying in order to facilitate such withholding, either in its own office or in the Sheriff's Department."
Dekraai opened fire inside Salon Meritage in Seal Beach in October 2011, killing eight people, including his former wife. Court documents alleged he "knew exactly what he was doing" and told police he plotted the massacre in the seaside community.
In January 2012, he pleaded not guilty to a grand jury indictment, but his attorney announced in April 2014 that he agreed to plead guilty to eight counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.
Jason Kandel contributed to this report.