Six minutes into a Jan. 27 pretrial hearing in the sensational death-penalty case of People v. Daniel Wozniak, Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler announced he'd "done some soul searching over the weekend," recused himself to a hushed courtroom and, though he promised not to, broke from a carefully prepared, written explanation to admit he'd recently found himself cheering for the prosecution.
"That kind of thinking is inappropriate," said a visibly distraught Stotler, his voice cracking. "The bottom line is I have to do what I think is right."
For a shocked Steve Herr, the grieving father of one of Wozniak's savagely murdered victims, the announcement immediately meant even more delays in the 5-year-old case and certainly the impossibility of a scheduled mid-February trial date.
"It's just not fair, sir!" Herr yelled at a Stotler, who quickly left the bench and entered his chambers without response.
Herr angrily confronted members of the Orange County Public Defender's office, which represents Wozniak; ran out of the courtroom; threw an electronic device so hard in a hallway that it shattered; and screamed, "No fucking balls! This is not fair! I can't wait another year!"
His frustration was both sad and understandable. There's no question of Wozniak's guilt. The soon-to-be-31-year-old, onetime up-and-coming local theater actor long ago confessed to the May 2010 killing of Samuel Eliezer Herr, 26, of Costa Mesa, and Juri "Julie" Kibuishi, 23, of Irvine. Cops believe Wozniak decapitated Herr, a friendly neighbor and combat veteran, to steal money for his planned wedding and honeymoon. Hours later, Wozniak lured Kibuishi to his victim's Orange Coast Community College-area apartment, shot her in the bedroom and left her partially undressed corpse to confuse investigators.
The major remaining question in the case is should Wozniak be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) or sent to San Quentin State Prison's death row. Homicide prosecutor Matt Murphy insists on death; public defender Scott Sanders argues LWOP.
There's little doubt the question favors Murphy in this region. Conservative, suburban Orange County jurors don't tend to endure sleepless nights after imposing the government's ultimate penalty. But California rarely, if ever, executes anyone. Regardless of the eventual sentence, Wozniak will probably die of natural causes decades from now in prison.
Sanders isn't accepting the risk, however. He also represents Scott Dekraai, the Seal Beach salon-massacre shooter who killed eight people and seriously wounded a ninth in October 2011. As did Wozniak, Dekraai admitted guilt shortly after his capture. A bitter child-custody dispute with his ex-wife, one of the victims, triggered the bloodbath. In that case, Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner opposes Sanders' LWOP stance, and that battle resulted in unprecedented developments.
In late January 2014, the public defender entered the courthouse with a literal thud from a 505-page motion that painstakingly outlined a yearlong probe he'd conducted into questionable law-enforcement activities that, he says, were designed to rob defendants of fair trials, which means OCDA can't be trusted in death-penalty cases. Prosecutors were not pleased. Murphy labeled the material "a dud," and Wagner called the filing "scurrilous."
While Stotler placed the Wozniak case on hold, in the Dekraai case, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals overruled prosecutors' objections and conducted a special evidentiary hearing from March to August. The session produced alarming documentation that eventually forced Wagner, the head of the OCDA homicide unit, to concede the accusations weren't as wild as he'd originally claimed. Indeed, while not all of Sanders' accusations panned out, evidence suggested law-enforcement officials operated an unethical, jailhouse-informant scam designed to secretly aid prosecutors and hid important records that might undermine government arguments.
Authorities also trampled clearly established constitutional boundaries by, for example, using hardened Mexican Mafia serial killers to frighten pretrial defendants into talking about their charges when their lawyers weren't present. There's no escaping that ugly reality; the conversations were recorded. In the wake of those revelations, charges got dropped against numerous felony defendants, and one prison inmate's murder conviction was vacated. Worse for law enforcement, Goethals supplied the devastating money quote: "Many of the [prosecution team] witnesses who testified during the course of this hearing were credibility-challenged [when denying Sanders' accusations]," he announced in the headlines-grabbing August ruling. "Others undoubtedly lied."
Yet, in a gift to the liars, the judge–a former prosecutor–refused to name the scoundrels or pursue perjury charges by pretending the under-oath dishonesty had been some sort of accidental, benign deceit more than a conspiracy. Goethals did block Wagner from using illegally obtained evidence and lectured government officials for the hiding of more than 20,000 pages of documents from Sanders.
However, Goethals declined the public defender's invitation to ban OCDA from seeking the death penalty against Dekraai as a remedy for the cheating.
That takes us back to Stotler and Sanders' attempt to launch special evidentiary hearings in the Wozniak case. In recent filings, the hard-charging public defender noted examples of past prosecutorial misconduct involving informants and discovery violations. But, unlike in the Dekraai case, in which the public defender caught Wagner misbehaving, he apparently doesn't have similar dirt on Murphy, arguably the region's top prosecutor.
Last week, before even perusing a key motion from Sanders on informant corruption, Stotler didn't mask his contempt, saying the thought of reading more allegations was "a nightmare." Throughout that hearing, Murphy and Sanders took verbal shots at each other. The judge posed as a neutral referee who didn't appreciate the "venom."
During his emotional recusal, however, Stotler made stunning admissions. He conceded that he'd abandoned impartiality at the Jan. 23 hearing by blaming Sanders for the "rancor" and had secretly sided with Murphy, whom he believes is the victim of the public defender's "whole lot of rhetoric" tactics to stall punishment hearings. He even admitted he'd granted Sanders extra public speaking time in hopes he would legally "dig his own grave."
"We're glad that he acknowledged what we've been saying: He couldn't be fair," said Sanders, who had voiced an intention to seek the judge's recusal weeks ago. "We're looking forward to having a court that can look at the allegations fairly."
Not surprisingly, Murphy was disappointed. "Judge Stotler is a very thoughtful, careful man," he told reporters. "We accept his decision."
There's at least temporary symmetry in the Wozniak and Dekraai cases. Goethals, who is despised by prosecutors for allowing Sanders' to probe law-enforcement cheating last year, will preside over both cases, unless Murphy demands another judge after press time.
Meanwhile, alleged new evidence contradicting deputies' sworn, 2014 testimony about the jailhouse-informant program is scheduled to be considered Feb. 5 in the Dekraai case. If Goethals determines the officers lied, he could impose additional sanctions. Or not.
UPDATE: 9:40 a.m., Jan. 29, 2015: Murphy objected to Goethals taking the case this morning and so it was re-assigned to Superior Court Judge John Conley, a seasoned veteran and former prosecutor.