An Orange County superior court judge today declared that a public defender provided “compelling evidence of serious misconduct” by law enforcement, blasted two veteran homicide prosecutors for ignoring ethical obligations and recused them from a pending bizarre murder case, but declined to boot Tony Rackauckas’ entire district attorney’s office.
Noting that Deputy Public Defender Sara Ross proved members of the prosecution team working against Cole Wilkins hid, altered and destroyed exculpatory evidence for the 2008 trial, Judge Thomas M. Goethals said that then-deputy DA’s Larry Yellin and Michael F. Murray “ultimately bare responsibility” for the misconduct.
Goethals’ firm statement underscores how seriously he takes his own independence and ethical standards.
Both Yellin and Murray became the judge’s elected colleagues earlier this month after long careers in Rackauckas’ office.
Reading from his ruling, Goethals conceded that the recusals are “largely symbolic” because the men are no longer prosecutors.
But the judge said he believes judicial transparency required him not to ignore the roles they played in convicting Wilkins of first-degree murder after a stove he’d stolen fell off the bed of a pickup truck in July 2006, landed on the 91 Freeway in Anaheim and David Piquette, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who swerved to miss the appliance, ended up crushed by a cement truck in another lane.
A California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer at the scene wrote an official report blaming Piquette for causing his own death by violating the state’s vehicle code for speeding and unsafe driving. That CHP officer noted “thousands” of other drivers had managed to avoid colliding into the stove prior to the off-duty deputy’s arrival at the spot.
Goethals today said Rackauckas had taken an “unusual” personal interest in boosting the case against Wilkins from a potential manslaughter count to first-degree murder.
Sometime before trial, CHP management, who’d been in contact with Rackauckas’ office, hid, altered and then destroyed two reports that blamed drivers, including Piquette, for causing collisions.
Yellin testified in December that he didn’t know of CHP’s actions, and denied ordering the shenanigans.
Murray, who was the trial prosecutor, told Goethals he didn’t care what CHP had done because nothing they wrote impacted his legal case, which was that Wilkins killed Piquette while in the commission of a felony.
But Ross argued both prosecutors had an obligation to surrender exculpatory evidence (the original CHP reports) before winning a conviction that put her client in prison for a term of 26 years to life.
In 2013, the California Supreme Court overturned the case, blaming Judge Richard Toohey for giving bad jury instructions that, in their view, took a likely acquittal and made it a conviction.
That decision inadvertently gave time for the public defender’s office to discover the CHP irregularities and a California Court of Appeal based in Santa Ana last year order special hearings to determine the legitimacy of Ross’ recusal motions.
While Goethals announced today that Murray had improperly ignored several alerts that there might be misconduct on the government’s side prior to sentencing, he declined to recuse Eric Scarbrough, a prosecutor who’d come to Yellin and Murray’s defense by “vehemently” dismissing Ross’ accusations of prosecution team hanky-panky.
Rackauckas must be relieved he personally avoided another embarrassment after having been infamously recused from People v. Scott Dekraai in March 2015.
But though Goethals said Ross hadn’t met a “higher burden” to win recusal of the entire DA’s office in this case, he noted that Orange County voters can let Rackauckas know if they approve of his conduct at elections.
The soon-to-be 74-year-old DA, who is under formal U.S. Department of Justice investigation stemming from what is known nationally as the Orange County jailhouse snitch scandal, claims he will seek a fifth, four-year term in 2018.
Wilkins’ new trial is tentative scheduled for April 17.