Last year may have been the most contentious ever between Orange County's prosecutors and public defenders over jailhouse informant program cheating, perjury by law enforcement officials and the hiding of exculpatory evidence in major felony trials, including the one involving Scott Dekraai, the shooter in the Seal Beach salon massacre.
It's now clear that the changing of the annual calendar to 2015 hasn't caused the battle between veteran, hard-charging lawyers to simmer.
At a Dec. 16 hearing, a clearly angry Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy lambasted Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders for employing Joe McCarthy-style tactics in the defense of two accused killers, Daniel Patrick Wozniak and Dekraai.
Sanders replied on Jan. 9 by filing a multi-pronged motion, alerting Superior Court Judge James Stotler, who presides in the Wozniak case, that he now will formally seek the recusal of Murphy, the Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA) and the entire local judiciary because of concerns his two, high-profile clients can't receive fair trials.
"During the recent hearing–attended by members of his office, including three prosecutors who led the Dekraai litigation–Murphy claimed that his office's prosecutors had uniformly been the victims of a 'witch hunt' by [me]," wrote Sanders, who says Murphy and his colleagues have provable "venom" for him in the cases. "[Murphy] argued that each of the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct made in Dekraai and in previous cases have been false, and compared [my defense work] to that of "[Joe] McCarthy."
Last August–after months of testimony during Sanders' probe of jailhouse informant program cheating, Judge Thomas M. Goethals–a former prosecutor–rule that multiple law enforcement officers committed perjury, but he refused to issue any individual punishments or to specifically identify the liars. The judge also found that prosecution teams repeatedly violated ethical duties to surrender exculpatory evidence to the defense in multiple cases, but he labeled the omissions unintentional negligence. More importantly to OCDA, he refused to recuse local prosecutors from the cases.
But Sanders says Murphy's Dec. 16 statements tainted not only himself and OCDA, but also the entire bench by arguing the public defender over the years smeared several sitting judges when they worked as prosecutors.
"Murphy's decision to include Judge Jonathan Fish and Judge Kevin Haskins in a quasi-evidentiary presentation of prior wrongdoing by [me], to ostensibly prevent a continuance, is particularly relevant to issues of recusal in this case," Sanders continued. "Murphy reasonably intended to telegraph to this court that a ruling for the defense in this case would mean embracing a counsel who wrongfully accused fellow members of the bench. Murphy's arguments clearly implied that to agree to continue the filing of the motions, let alone rule in favor of the defendant in this matter, would give credence to past claims against members of the bench."
At the December hearing, Murphy didn't hold back his contempt for Sanders, who claims OCDA has a "win at all costs" mentality. He mocked his work habits, called him callous to the victims' families and portrayed his filings as nothing more than "wild conjecture."
The prosecutor even acknowledged he didn't mind giving Sanders "ammo" for a recusal motion and then noted recent conversations with Fish and Haskins where the judges apparently acknowledged they felt smeared by the public defender in the past.
"It's nothing new from Mr. Sanders," Murphy told Stotler. "He's been doing this his whole career . . . Jon Fish had a case with him, okay? He accused him repeatedly of misconduct. Kevin Haskins had a case with him. I asked Kevin, 'Didn't you have a case with Scott Sanders?' He laughed and said, 'He never stopped accusing me of misconduct.'"
The prosecutor then listed OCDA staffers who he sees as Sanders' victims: Mike Murray, Troy Pino, Mike Fell, Cameron Talley, Eric Scarbrough, Jim Mendelson, Raul Gupta, Mark Geller, Dan Wagner, Scott Simmons, Beth Costello, Erik Petersen, Larry Yellin, Tony Rackauckas and "me."
"I know the court hates it, but we are here," Murphy advised Stotler. "We're dealing with it, and at a certain point, the only person that could put a stop to this is you."
The judge replied, "I know."
To help guarantee fair trials for his clients, Sanders now believes he is entitled to receive additional, court-mandated discovery from Murphy about his recent contacts with his colleagues and the judges.
The public defender is scheduled to appear at a Jan. 16, pre-trial hearing in Dekraai case and later this month he'll go face-to-face again against Murphy in the Wozniak matter.