An observer unfamiliar with the workings of Orange County's criminal-justice system would have been perplexed that a 9 a.m. hearing on Sept. 8 for Oscar Moriel, a notorious serial killer who led a double life, failed to lure a single friend or relative of his victims. But Judge Patrick Donahue's almost-empty Santa Ana courtroom isn't an unexplainable phenomenon. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, the self-styled crime victims' champion, wanted it that way because he has formed an unholy alliance with the murderer.
If not for one problem, the stage had been set to quietly give Moriel a sweetheart deal that would erase an earned life-in-prison punishment so he can roam the streets again. That problem materialized with the arrival of three reporters, whose presence visibly irked Assistant DA James Laird. Rackauckas assigned Laird the task of shepherding the case to a resolution he can successfully sell to the public as aboveboard, an outcome more guaranteed if journalists aren't making a fuss about ugly behind-the-scenes maneuverings.
It's not often you'll see a prosecutor openly chummy with a defense lawyer, but there's nothing usual about this situation. Laird entered the courtroom, saw the reporters, looked nauseated, passed them without greetings, approached Moriel counsel Ernest Eady and began whispering. Shortly thereafter, the men exited to a hallway so they could speak more privately. Next, they sought an audience with Donahue in his chambers. Then, they both went to spend time chatting with Moriel, who was locked in a holding cell.
Nine o'clock became 10, then 11, and finally, as it was obvious the reporters weren't going to abandon their posts, at 11:22 a.m., that day's charade began with Moriel's entrance. Wearing an orange jail jump suit and iron shackles, with a shaved head, his trademark goatee and a smirk, Moriel strolled in with a gait that could have misled someone into thinking the killer had recently won a Fantasy 5 jackpot. Perhaps Moriel's even luckier. As with 69 times prior—that is not a typo, folks—Rackauckas' office and the defense agreed to delay advancement of the 12-year-old charges.
There are other alarming facts. The case involves the felon's arrest following alleged Oct. 27, 2005, crimes of attempted murder, armed criminal gang activity and street terrorism. Though he confessed on the record he killed as many as six people before that date, the DA's office hasn't even bothered to open a single corresponding investigation. Worse, Moriel testified three years ago during special evidentiary hearings in People v. Scott Dekraai that Orange County law-enforcement officials, who've spent dozens of hours debriefing him as a jailhouse informant, never asked him to solve his own murders, callously blocking a half-dozen likely poor Latino families from gaining any semblance of justice for the loss of their loved ones.
Three years ago, I reported on an authentic audio recording proving Santa Ana Police Department detective Chuck Flynn, who worked closely with Rackauckas' office, made a Feb. 17, 2009, deal with Moriel, then a Mexican Mafia boss who promised he could concoct future memories to help jurors side with prosecutors—but at a price. "I'm looking for, uh, options would be nice," he said. "Right now, I'm in a place with no options. I'm looking at a third strike. I'm looking at life in prison. So, the more options I have to work with and to choose from, the better position I'll be in to think more clearly."
Flynn responded, "You'll get maximum consideration for everything you do. . . . Understand?"
"Yeah, I understand," Moriel answered.
After suggesting Moriel should join the U.S. Army so he could legally kill people and "get away with it," Flynn, himself a veteran, promised "no one" would ever learn of their pact. There's no mystery for the motive of the planned secrecy.
Keeping judges and juries clueless that Moriel's testimony had been purchased fraudulently strengthened prosecution cases. Events two days earlier in the same courthouse illuminate the fickle underpinnings of our DA's office and underscore a point conceded even by Rackauckas' allies: He's more committed to winning than seeking justice. If the DA has no desire to permanently protect society from a serial killer, he's been downright dogged in keeping Cole Wilkins, a Long Beach burglar, locked in prison forever.
In middle of a July 2006 night, Wilkins stole kitchen appliances from a Riverside County residential construction site. More than 60 miles away, on the 91 freeway in Anaheim, a boxed stove fell from the back of his truck because he'd left the tailgate down and failed to use tie-downs. Though dozens, if not hundreds, of motorists avoided collisions, the stove caused a couple of minor crashes and, five minutes later, prompted driver David Piquette to swerve at a 90-degree angle across four lanes at which time he struck a cement truck that fell over and crushed him.
Law-enforcement officials around the state were furious because Piquette worked as a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, who'd been off-duty but driving to work. Even acknowledging Wilkins hadn't intended to kill anyone, Rackauckas decided he deserved a punishment just shy of the death penalty. The DA employed the felony murder rule that states a killing occurring during the course of any number of felony acts, such as burglary, equals murder. Not knowing California Highway Patrol (CHP) officials destroyed an original accident report that blamed Piquette for driving in an unsafe manner, a 2008 jury convicted Wilkins of first-degree murder. Judge Richard Toohey sentenced him to a term of 26 years to life in prison.
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The California Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2014 because Toohey gave jurors faulty instructions that favored the prosecution. Then-defense attorney Sara Ross learned of the CHP shenanigans, which triggered Judge Thomas M. Goethals earlier this year to rule the DA's office cheated Wilkins out of key evidence. He scheduled a second trial that ended with Sept. 5 closing arguments. "This case is a terrible, tragic, unexpected accident," Ross declared. "It is not murder."
Fearing jurors might prefer to convict 41-year-old Wilkins of manslaughter—a verdict that would likely free him after already spending a decade in prison, Deputy DA Jennifer Walker refused to give the panel any option other than murder. "The defendant's actions took a precious life," she said. "The defendant is guilty of murder. . . . You can't consider sympathy for [him]."
After less than a day of deliberations, jurors agreed, though at least one left weeping. Ross intends to appeal, believing Walker tricked the jury by arguing a misleading interpretation of the legal requirement necessary to support the verdict. She said the DA failed to prove Wilkins' actions carried a "high probability" of someone's death. Ignoring case law, Walker lowered the standard by claiming she only needed jurors to believe that driving with the appliances unsecured in the truck had been "dangerous to human life."
Future appellate justices will settle the dispute. Meanwhile, Rackauckas is celebrating. "This defendant deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison for murdering a police officer who was on his way to serve and protect the public," he rejoiced in a press release. The DA's final quote should be considered in context of his refusal to hold Moriel accountable to his dead victims and their families: "We dedicate our lives," Rackauckas claimed, to "crime victims and survivors."