SANTA ANA (AP) — The Orange County district attorney’s office, criticized in a recent appellate court ruling for a systemic failure to protect defendants’ rights, is facing a new legal challenge that could remove it from a second high-profile murder case in less than two years.
Controversy has centered on allegations that prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies illegally used jailhouse informants and withheld evidence. Now, the same judge who removed the office of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas from a mass murder case is hearing arguments on whether to bar county prosecutors from the retrial of a man accused of causing a crash in 2006 that killed a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy in Anaheim, according to The Orange County Register.
Once again, the allegations involve withholding evidence, in this case information that a police report was altered in a murder case against convicted burglar Cole Wilkins.
During the first week of testimony before Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, a retired California Highway Patrol sergeant testified that officers initially concluded that the deputy was at fault for the crash that killed him. Former Sgt. Joe Morrison later concluded the deputy was not at fault and destroyed the original report. Morrison said he did so on his own, without being asked by prosecutors.
No information about the changed reports was relayed to the defense. Wilkins, then 29, was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for murder. He was granted a new trial in 2013 because of other issues.
The hearing hinges on whether prosecutors Larry Yellin and Michael Murray, both of whom were elected in June as Orange County Superior Court judges, knew of the changes and withheld them from the defense team during a 2008 trial.
Prosecutors have said they didn’t know about the changed reports and, even if they did, the information was immaterial and didn’t absolve Wilkins of killing the deputy.
The district attorney’s office did not respond to recent requests for comment from The Register, but its chief of staff previously spoke about prosecutors’ intentions. “A Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy was murdered on his way to his work, and the (Orange County district attorney) will continue to work to bring justice for his wife and children,” Susan Kang Schroeder said.
Last year, Goethals ruled that local prosecutors could not be trusted to provide a fair hearing in the penalty phase for admitted mass murderer Scott Dekraai. A California appeals court last month described a “steady stream of evidence regarding improper conduct by the prosecution team” in the case.