Saying he is "shocked" by "ad hominem" attacks, a veteran Orange County Superior Court judge today lectured a prosecutor and defense lawyer in People v. Daniel Wozniak, a pending death penalty case.
Homicide prosecutor Matt Murphy and Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders are tireless, gifted legal advocates, but they also despise one other--a sentiment neither has masked for 18 months of courthouse bickering that's gotten personal.
Murphy says Sanders is rude, obnoxious and a chronic, empty accuser of prosecutorial misconduct. He thinks his adversary purposely blocked his 2014 Christmas vacation. Sanders says Murphy is a cheap-shot artist and reckless defender of unethical law enforcement conduct. He thinks the prosecutor can't be trust to surrender exculpatory evidence. Both agree, however, the other isn't fit to handle such a high stakes case.
"He's a hypocrite," Murphy declared today.
Sanders said the prosecutor hoped to "poison the court" against the defense by repeatedly labeling him "a bad evil-doer."
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Tensions only flared after Sanders' partial, March victory in a separate death penalty case, People v. Scott Dekraai, where a judge recused Dan Wagner, Murphy's boss and close friend, after numerous ethical blunders were discovered.
Earlier this year, the Murphy/Sanders insults prompted Judge James Stotler to recuse himself after admitting he held a passionate bias against the public defender.
Conley--a former prosecutor known for a no-nonsense disposition--now presides for the case's penalty phase and listened quietly for nearly an hour this morning to Round 127 in the slug-fest before opining.
"This is just child's play," the judge said tersely. "Personal dislikes of each other have taken over the case."
He then summarized the position he says the lawyers espouse: "He's a jerk. I don't like him and I don't trust him."
Conley left the topic for about 10 minutes to deny Sanders' request to recuse Murphy and his office colleagues, but returned to add an additional description for the conduct of "both" lawyers: "Beginners' horseplay."
Wozniak, a local theater actor, could face the death penalty for the May 2010 robbery and decapitation murder of Samuel Herr, 26, at the Los Alamitos military base followed by the execution of 23-year-old Juri "Julie" Kibuishi in Costa Mesa near Orange Coast College.
Wozniak is willing to accept life in prison without the possibility of parole. Murphy wants the death penalty imposed. A future jury will receive evidence to help determine the outcome.
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Relatives of the two victims attend each court hearing and vocally urge a final resolution in the five-year-old case.
Producers for national television news outlets are preparing broadcasts on the crimes.