More Evidence Of State Cheating Must Block Death Penalty In Seal Beach Salon Case: Lawyer

Judge Goethals gets another stack of fascinating, true-crime reading
Judge Goethals gets another stack of fascinating, true-crime reading
OC Weekly photo

Claiming there's ample new evidence that Orange County's law-enforcement community can't be trusted to behave honestly, a defense lawyer for the killer in the 2011 Seal Beach salon massacre is urging a judge to reconsider an August ruling that conceded government cheating, but still left prosecutors' death-penalty demand an option.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders told Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals in a Nov. 7 motion that he has uncovered additional efforts by the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA) and sheriff's deputies to sabotage the defense of Scott Dekraai by hiding evidence and offering dishonest testimony.

Prosecutors insist errors were innocent mistakes and promise retraining, but Sanders says there has been "a systematic and ongoing process of concealing evidence favorable to the defense," practices that have caused him to divert focus on the "litigation at hand" to chase seemingly endless examples of unethical law-enforcement conduct tied to the case.

"It is assumed that the priority of law-enforcement and prosecutorial agencies is to ensure that justice is done, not to ensure victory," Sanders wrote. "A system in which the governing principle of the state is self-protecting and winning by any means rather than the assurance of justice is one in which we can never be confident that all favorable evidence discovered by the state is divulged to the defense and, thus, presented to a jury."

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Earlier this year, Goethals conducted a months-long evidentiary hearing that revealed widespread OCDA abuses of discovery obligations and concealed uses of two-faced informants in dozens of felony cases. The moves weren't odd just because prosecutors take oaths to be honest courtroom brokers, but also because there was--in many of the cases--no reason to cheat given the evidence. Recent months have witnessed prosecutors dropping cases against men they'd claimed were dangerous killers rather than risk additional embarrassing information would emerge during trials.

Because Dekraai has admitted he killed eight people during a shooting spree stemming from a bitter child-custody dispute, the only fight is whether the 45-year-old Huntington Beach man will spend the rest of his life in a California prison without the possibility for parole or receive the death penalty, a sentence that, given his age and a typical 35-year systemic delay, might not ever be carried out.

For prosecutor Dan Wagner, Dekraai earned the ultimate punishment as the instigator of the worst mass killing in Orange County history.

 

But Sanders believes Wagner, who heads the OCDA homicide unit, has been overzealous in attempting to send Dekraai to San Quentin State Prison's notorious Death Row. For example, Wagner improperly obtained "four or five" records pertaining to Dekraai's consultations with mental-health experts and his lawyers and, though the case is more than three years old, advised Sanders of the fact in recent weeks, according to the new motion.

Sanders battles Dekraai's prosecutors--including Wagner (far right)--earlier this year
Sanders battles Dekraai's prosecutors--including Wagner (far right)--earlier this year
OC Weekly photo

However, perhaps more alarming to Sanders is that prosecutors and sheriff's deputies testified for hours and hours downplaying the suspected orchestrated movements of informants in the jails to win confessions after a defendant had been arraigned and had a lawyer, an illegal government tactic.

Despite evidence otherwise, government officials denied they'd participated in such schemes or declared themselves in the midst of sudden memory loss. In a few cases, jail deputies known for relatively keen intellects appeared on the witness stand to be dumber than a box of rocks or more forgetful than your drooling great-grandfather. Nonetheless, Goethals--a former prosecutor--ruled in August that the informant movements hadn't been part of a conspiracy.

Now, Sanders says the judge must re-consider that decision in the wake of a recent discovery: Testifying jail deputies--Ben Garcia, Bill Grover and Seth Tunstall--concealed the existence of a decades-old, computerized "TRED" system that records daily inmate movements, and that concealment allowed the deputies to misled the court about the coordinated use of informants.

Garcia, for example, distanced himself from the movements by claiming Dekraai's cell location next to a prolific informant had been the result of a nurse's housing recommendation and, he claimed with a straight face, that deputy wishes were secondary.

But in discovering the secret TRED system, Sanders found this entry written by Garcia's own Special Handling Unit: "[Dekraai] is not to be moved regardless of medical or mental health request. All movement has/will be approved by [the Special Handling Unit]."

To the public defender, this revelation "alone" requires the judge to reverse his prior finding.

"Garcia was telling [under oath] half-truths and, at times, telling no truth at all," Sanders told Goethals. "Garcia had a sudden bout of amnesia. . . . Quite obviously, his refusal to reference these [TRED] records can only be rationally viewed as consciousness of wrongdoing. . . . The reality is that when these deputies testified, they understood their objective: avoid giving a single, careless answer that could lead to a revelation about the existence of the TRED records. They were successful, if conspiracy to obstruct justice by a law-enforcement officer, is considered an achievement."

Sanders' motion also targets Senior Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin for publicly attacking his contentions while allegedly himself hiding critical informant records in a major, 1998 Orange County homicide case: People v. Nuzzio Begaren. Gunmen ambushed Begaren on a 91 freeway off-ramp in Anaheim and murdered his wife, a passenger in the vehicle and a prison guard. A jury convicted Begaren for hiring hoodlums to kill his wife.

Yellin is presently in trial and wasn't available for an interview.

In addition to blocking the death penalty for Dekraai, Sanders wants Goethals to put Wagner--who has not yet responded to a Weekly request for comment--back on the witness stand and to order the government to surrender more records about the use of informants.

Orange County Sheriff's Department spokesman Lieutenant Jeff Hallock said he wasn't familiar with the motion but believes his agency "takes seriously any allegations that a deputy's court testimony may have been inaccurate."

Added Hallock, "The department will continue to cooperate and respond as necessary [to court proceedings]."

If Dekraai ultimately receives the death penalty, California requires an exhaustive, decades-long process designed to see if prosecutors and police hid evidence or otherwise tainted the proceedings.

Sanders also represents Daniel Wozniak, another death-penalty candidate following the gruesome, 2010 murders of Samuel Herr at Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base and Julie Kibuishi in Costa Mesa near the Orange Coast College campus.

Go HERE to see our exclusive cover story about Mexican Mafia informants used by Southern California law enforcement.

Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!

Email: rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @RScottMoxley.


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