Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas did not take kindly to Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals kicking his entire office off a mass-murder penalty-phase case last month over misconduct allegations and, according to the local bar association, has taken the antagonism to a new level.
The Orange County bar accused Rackauckas’s office in a resolution (pdf) of taking actions that appeared to be “designed as punitive and retaliatory and going beyond the realm of appropriate criticism and appeal and could also be construed as an attempt to intimidate not just that judge, but the entire judiciary.”
The resolution cited a Los Angeles Times story that said prosecutors requested that Goethals be disqualified from 57 of their cases since February 2014, compared to just five in the three previous years. That is known in the trade as “papering a judge.”
The challenges came as Goethals, a former prosecutor himself, convened hearings to probe the conduct of the D.A.’s office in the case of Scott Evans Dekraii, who killed his ex-wife and seven others in a hair salon in 2011. Dekraii’s attorney alleged prosecutors made illegal use of a secret jailhouse informant network.
After six months, the judge issued a scathing report (pdf) that sided with the defense. He called the government’s behavior “outrageous” and wrote:
“Many of the witnesses who testified during the course of this hearing were credibility challenged. These witnesses include current and former prosecutors, as well as current and former sworn peace officers. Some perhaps suffered from a failure of recollection. Other undoubtedly lied.”
Dekraii’s public defender, Scott Sanders, alleged that informants recorded conversations with prisoners who were already represented by attorneys. That’s a no-no. Sanders also said prosecutors improperly withheld evidence that would have helped the defense in cases, and cops lied on the stand about the informant network with the support of the D.A.’s office.
The judge’s decision to jettison the entire D.A.’s office dumped the case in the lap of California Attorney General Kamala Harris. She has temporarily declined the honor and appealed Goethals’ decision to a higher court.
Fallout from the Dekraai case was immediate. The life sentence of convicted murderer Leonel Vega was vacated and he was granted a new trial. One of the key snitches in his case was also involved in the Dekraai case, as well as with other defendants. Sanders said potentially dozens of cases could be affected by the improper use of snitches.
The prosecutors have been exercising their legitimate right to issue a peremptory challenge to a judge who they deem prejudiced against them, forcing Goethals’ automatic disqualification.
According to the Times, the cases Goethals is being kicked off include obscure, as well as important, ones. The D.A.’s office denied there was a concerted attempt to paper the judge. Goethals has been reduced to handling mostly white-collar crime cases.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Sidney Powell told the Huffington Post that she’s not surprised at what Goethals found or how the D.A. is reacting. Orange County “is notorious within California and has been for years,” she said/ A thorough cleansing with bleach and fire hoses would be appropriate.”