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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.”

Father of five arrested for leaving kids unattended while at work

Wake County Justice Center

Father of five arrested for leaving kids unattended while at work

On August 15, Victor Alonzo King of Raleigh, North Carolina was arrested and accused of child abuse. His offense? Allegedly leaving his five children under the age of eight unattended while he went to work. King’s employer says he left the children with a neighbor, who then left them alone, according to ABC 13. In court on Wednesday, King begged the judge to let him out so he could keep his job.

“Two weeks ago my wife was diagnosed with stage four cancer,” King said. “And I’m practically like her only way to pay for all of her medical bills. So I was wondering if I could get out early and I can still work so I won’t lose my job so I can still pay for her medical expenses.”

Instead, the judge set his bond at $25,000, after learning of a 2011 charge against King for child cruelty. Word of his case quickly spread, in part thanks to an online fundraising page set up by a local teacher that raised $1,300 in the first few hours. By Friday, King had been bailed out by a complete stranger, and returned to work.

“When I saw that he was just a working dad trying to take care of his family and had trouble with his kids it really broke my heart,” the teacher, Rikki Hilliard, told Eyewitness News.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman did not respond to a request for comment on King’s incarceration and the charges against him.

King is not the first parent to face criminal charges while trying to balance work and childcare. Debra Harrell, a South Carolina mom, was arrested and charged with child neglect in 2014 for letting her nine-year-old play at a park without her supervision while she worked her job at McDonald’s. Harrell was held in jail for 17 days.

There is a terrible irony in jailing a parent who struggles to find childcare. If Harrell and King struggled to find supervision for their kids while at work, who’s going to do it while they’re in jail? Detaining a parent ultimately harms the children the court alleges to protect. In both of these cases, poverty and a shortage of childcare options play a key role. But the response of law enforcement and prosecutors who pursue charges against these parents, who are trying to earn money to support the very children they’re allegedly neglecting, appear to disregard those circumstances entirely.

There are other incidents involving the criminalization of overwhelmingly harmless parenting choices. In Connecticut, a mother was charged after briefly leaving her daughter in the car while she went into a store. The child had asked to stay behind while her mom went in, and according to police, was responsive and not in any distress when they arrived on the scene. In Ohio, Jeffrey Williamson was arrested in front of his family in 2014 for child endangerment after his son skipped out on church and was found playing in the neighborhood unsupervised, four blocks from his home. And then there’s Kelly Williams-Bolar, who was arrested and jailed after lying about her address so she could send her kids to a better school.

While real instances of child neglect and endangerment should be taken seriously, unnecessarily involving the criminal justice system can create devastating results for families. For parents like King and Harrell, who are the only breadwinners in the household, the loss of a job while incarcerated has a harmful ripple effect.

As The New York Times recently reported, low-income parents, particularly mothers of color, disproportionately face the removal of their children from their homes. The aggressive pursuit of child endangerment cases tears families apart, and creates lasting consequences for children who are placed in foster care.

King’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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Arizona prosecutor violated federal law by not personally reviewing wiretap warrants

Arizona prosecutor violated federal law by not personally reviewing wiretap warrants

A federal appellate court has ruled that the office of Maricopa County District Attorney Bill Montgomery violated the law with their wiretapping practices.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that Montgomery didn’t personally review and sign off on surveillance warrants, which is required by federal law. Montgomery instead relied on a less restrictive state statute that allowed him to delegate responsibility to someone else in his office.

Alan Simpson, a defense lawyer not involved in this case, told theArizona Republic that the ruling will likely lead to the suppression of wiretap evidence in lots of ongoing criminal cases.

“This is really big,” Simpson said. “It’s a tsunami that’s going to wash so many of these cases right out … There’s no legal way around it. The evidence is suppressible.”

The decision came down in a civil lawsuit filed by Manuella Villa, claimed that her conversations were illegally recorded by law enforcement during a 2012 drug investigation at the direction of Montgomery’s office.

Villa was not the focus of the investigation and was never charged with any crime.

While the court held that Montgomery’s handling of the warrants violated the law, it also found that Villa could not recover monetary damages because the wiretap application was carried out in “good faith.” Moreover, the court held that Villa’s claims only applied to her situation and denied her attempt to bring a class action suit on behalf of others, like her, whose communications had been intercepted by similarly obtained wiretap warrants.

Maricopa County District Attorney Bill Montgomery

Villa’s lawyer, Cameron Morgan, told the Associated Press that the ruling was important even though he disagreed with the court saying the wiretap application was carried out in good faith.

“We’ve seen a lot of abuses of wiretap investigative techniques,” Morgan said. “Hopefully, this will end some of the major abuses. And, hopefully, it’ll make the (Arizona) judiciary sit up and take notice.”

Montgomery has indicated he will appeal the ruling, while also claiming he reads every affidavit provided by law enforcement in support of a wiretap.

But Judge William Fletcher, writing for the three-judge appellate panel, said there was nothing in the record to indicate Montgomery was familiar with Villa’s case, and said it was clear that Montgomery had authorized deputy prosecutors to apply for wiretaps.

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