Following an Orange County judge's recent historic decision to recuse District Attorney Tony Rackauckas from the death penalty case against Scott Dekraai, guilty in the 2011 Seal Beach salon massacre, the solemn DA stood in front of reporters today on a mission.
In the ongoing law enforcement cheating scandal, Rackauckas wants residents to know that while there have been numerous screw-ups his prosecutors are "honest and hardworking," and that the real villain is a system that delays justice for the family and friends of Dekraai's eight murdered victims.
"I think the system has let them down," the DA said. "I'm trying to bring these [types of] cases to justice in a more expeditious way. It's getting worse, rather than getting better. The process has gotten more complicated over time."
During a morning court session with Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals, the California Attorney General's office announced it would seek an appellate reversal of the judge's March 12 recusal order, claiming the move to ban the entire DA's office from the Dekraai case was unnecessarily excessive. Plus the AG's office doesn't want the extra work. Rackauckas supported the move and the judge pushed back the penalty phase of the case until July 24 while all of the parties wait for a three-member California Court of Appeal panel to rule. In reality, however, the appellate delays could take years to resolve.
This latest delay in the 3.5-year-old case pains victims' families and friends. Paul Wilson, who lost his wife in the tragedy, told Goethals he doesn't know how Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, Dekraai's lawyer, lives with the "blood on his hands" by representing "that coward." Wilson also blasted Rackauckas, whose prosecution team lost the judge's confidence that they could obey well establish court rules against hiding exculpatory evidence from defendants or discouraging perjury by Orange County Sheriff's Department deputies tied to the case.
"Tony, you let me down," Wilson said while searching for the the DA's face that didn't acknowledge him. "This was a ship and you were the captain. That ship sank and I blame you. We shouldn't be here [debating recusal]. None of this should have happened."
During his press conference, Rackauckas said he sympathizes with Wilson and the other victims. But less than 10 feet away stood Todd Spitzer, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, former state Assemblyman and prosecutor under this DA. Spitzer seethed at his old boss.
"The system did not fail," Spitzer declared moments after the DA walked away with a team of at least four security guards flanking his steps. "It was Tony Rackauckas who failed. The buck stops there."
Spitzer, a victims' rights lawyer in his other active career, defended the work of Sanders and Goethals while denouncing what he sees as the DA's cheap politicization of the case.
"It's so insulting that the day after Judge Goethals makes his decision on recusal, the DA's campaign manager [Michael J. Schroeder] is in the newspapers making personal attacks [on the judge]. That's typical of this DA. He takes horrible advice from his handlers. Judge Goethals made a decision based on the law and the facts, and yet Rackauckas' campaign manager denigrates him. This should be about justice. What a debacle. People are now questioning whether you can get justice from this DA's office. The time has come for him to stand up, but he never admits he's wrong about anything."
Spitzer, whose never made a secret that he'd someday like to become the county's top prosecutor, said he will encourage his supervisor colleagues to expand the Office of Independent Review's oversight authority to include Rackauckas' office.
At the conclusion of his remarks, Spitzer walked over to me and began fielding additional questions as camera operators for Los Angeles TV news stations packed their equipment. He expanded his thoughts on the DA and his chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder, saying, "She goes for the jugular to ruin people's lives. That's nasty."
Schroeder had been standing at my rear, smiling and filming Spitzer's comments on her white iPhone. He walked up, visibly disgusted. Schroeder stopped filming, stuck out her right hand to shake, "How are you?"
Spitzer looked down, then up at her face. There was a moment of silent. Schroeder continued smiling and holding out her hand.
"You don't deserve a handshake," he said, glaring at her. "That's how evil you are."
Schroeder–who has delighted for years in provoking someone she sees as a potential competitor to replace the 72-year-old Rackauckas when he retires–laughed. Spitzer walked away. Wide-eyed reporters breathed deeply and sighed.
"He has anger management issues," she said, before showing reporters photographs of her two new puppies. "Aren't they so cute?"