Judge Considers Banning Death Penalty As Sanction For Government Corruption
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens' lack of honesty prompts new judicial hearings into law enforcement corruption
Steve Weigl / OC Weekly
Because of chronic and "ongoing" cheating by the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) in a pending murder case, a superior court judge today announced contemplation of what was once "completely unthinkable": removing the death penalty as a punishment option for the man who committed the worse mass killing in local history.
"Until recently, that was not a particularly viable choice," said Judge Thomas M. Goethals, who presides in People v. Scott Dekraai, which began with a horrendous 2011 crime, the murder of eight people at a Seal Beach salon, and, thanks to revelations of OCSD corruption with at least tacit approval of the district attorney's office, devolved into one of California's most embarrassing criminal justice scandals.
Employing "the nuclear option . . . an extraordinary step" against the government is the only formal sanction left for Goethals to get the attention of Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who has been openly defiant of his court orders and findings of "extensive" corruption.
"We know what happened," said Goethals, who was referring to proof that Hutchens' deputies systemically conspired to violate the constitutional rights of in-custody, pre-trial inmates; hid exculpatory evidence; committed perjury to conceal the cheating and manufactured a false public relations spin to confuse the community. "The sheriff can say what she wants. She can ignore the facts, if she thinks that's politically beneficial."
The judge is imposing an informal sanction of sorts by declaring he'll hold new special evidentiary hearings this summer in Dekraai to hear OCSD officials explain their actions under oath, including on allegations regarding two-year gaps in records, the shredding of sought documents; and suspicious 2016 memos between Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner and a deputy assigned to surrender records in compliance with court orders.
"I want to find out what's going on," he said. "My concern is a lack of compliance with legitimate orders made by this court over the last four years . . . ongoing significant failures of compliance."
Scott Sanders, the assistant public defender who represents Dekraai, said the hearings are necessary because a code of silence about internal corruption exists within Hutchens' ranks.
In 2015, Wagner and all of his colleagues found themselves involuntarily recused from the case because Geothals, a former high-ranking homicide prosecutor, believed he could not trust anyone in the DA's office to insist the Dekraai prosecution team, which included Hutchens' staffers, would behave ethically to obtain the death penalty.
After a California Court of Appeal agreed with Goethals' reasoning, the California Attorney General's Office assumed prosecution duties.
For a second consecutive session, a family member of one of the salon massacre's victims spoke and lambasted Deputy Attorney General Michael T. Murphy for what they see as callously pursuing the death penalty over their objections.
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Paul Wilson, who lost his wife, said he is "appalled and devastated" by the AG's plan against "this coward," a move that is prolonging excruciating pain for "me and the other families."
"The decision that they have made is the wrong decision," Wilson told Goethals. "We cannot find closure in this."
His sentiment echoed the March 30 words of Bethany Webb, who lost her sister.
"We won't find any relief in [Dekraai's] death," Webb said. "This is a waste of time. We are six years later and we are not closer to an end. This case is fatally flawed and everybody knows it."
Goethals plans to schedule a hearing, potentially in May, when all the victims can tell him their views.
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