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Death penalty taken off table for killer due to prosecutor and sheriff misconduct

Seal Beach
Photo by Flickr user Lars Plougmann

Death penalty taken off table for killer due to prosecutor and sheriff misconduct


A California judge has taken the death penalty off the table for Scott Dekraai after finding that the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department engaged in “chronic” corruption.

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals said Dekraai could not face the death penalty due to the repeated misconduct by both D.A. Tony Rackauckas’s office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Goethals had previously kicked Rackauckas’s office off Dekraai’s case in March 2015 due to the same misconduct. Dekraai pleaded guilty to killing eight people and wounded another in a 2011 shooting that the court called “the largest mass killing in the history of Orange County.”

Goethals’ order lambasted both offices for their respective roles in a notorious jailhouse snitch program that encouraged inmates to inform on other defendants. The judge also expressed displeasure with Rackauckas for failing to comply with orders to turn over additional information.

Goethals said the behavior of the prosecution — which he described as “chronic obstructionism” — and the Sheriff’s Department — which the court said acted with “indolence and obfuscation”— meant that a fair penalty trial could not be assured.

Tony Rackauckas

Goethals said the behavior of the prosecution — which he described as “chronic obstructionism” — and the Sheriff’s Department — which the court said acted with “indolence and obfuscation”— meant that a fair penalty trial could not be assured.

The court acknowledged the significance of its ruling, particularly given Dekraai’s crimes. But while “this defendant deserved swift and sure punishment for the terrible crimes he committed,” Goethals emphasized “maintaining the integrity and viability of Orange County’s criminal justice system remains of paramount importance.”

Goethals said courts must demand everyone follow the same rules to maintain the integrity of America’s system of justice. And if he permits any individual or agency to disregard its orders, to in effect ignore the law, then the court has failed to fulfill its sworn obligation to fairly and consistently enforce that law.

Dekraai has already pleaded guilty and Goethals indicated in his order that he planned to sentence Dekraai “to the maximum remaining possible sentence at [the] first legal opportunity to do so.” That sentence would amount to at least eight consecutive life terms in prison.

It will be up the office of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office took over the case after Rackauckas was removed, to decide whether to appeal Goethals’ ruling.

There have been multiple reports that Rackauckas’s office planted jailhouse snitches and kept using them after some proviced information that was unreliable or false. Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens have both denied doing this, but some former inmates have come forward and said they worked as snitches for years.

Rackauckas has faced mounting scandals that recently led another public official to announce he will run for district attorney in 2018.

As reported by the OC Weekly, Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a member of the California state assembly and former prosecutor, called for both Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to resign “before the end of their elected terms in office because of their ‘reprehensible’ conduct.”