SANTA ANA (AP) — Orange County prosecutors can seek the death penalty for a man who admitted killing eight people at a hair salon, but they can’t use evidence improperly gleaned from a jailhouse informant in the case, a judge ruled Monday.
After a months-long hearing on allegations of government misconduct, Judge Thomas M. Goethals found that the district attorney’s office was negligent in failing to quickly discern that the jailhouse snitch had long worked for prosecutors on other cases. But he determined the office did not maliciously intend to violate the rights of 44-year-old killer Scott Dekraai.
Goethals let prosecutors proceed with the case but barred them from using the evidence — which they already had agreed not to introduce.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders wanted the district attorney’s office recused and the death penalty taken off the table. He argued that having the snitch — who himself was an inmate — chat up Dekraai about his case without his lawyer present violated his constitutional rights.
“The events associated with the current hearing do not constitute the District Attorney’s finest hour,” Goethals wrote in a 12-page ruling. “Nonetheless, after an exhaustive evaluation of the totality of this record, the court finds that the District Attorney’s well-documented failures in this case, although disappointing, even disheartening, to any interested member of this community, were negligent rather than malicious.”
Dekraai pleaded guilty in May to killing his hairstylist ex-wife and seven others in a 2011 rampage. A date has yet to be set for a penalty phase of the trial for a jury to recommend whether he ought to face life in prison or a death sentence.
The allegations that authorities misused jailhouse informants and failed to turn over required evidence to Dekraai and other murder and gang crime suspects drew widespread attention from defense attorneys who wondered whether their clients also might have been improperly approached or denied key evidence about their cases.
Since the hearing began in March, one man’s conviction was vacated. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said his office has turned over additional evidence to a handful of other defendants and held a special training for prosecutors on the use of informants.
Rackauckas, who said he is glad Dekraai’s case is moving forward, also told reporters he is reviewing prosecutors’ workloads and discussing with the sheriff’s department how deputies manage informants in the jails.
While jailhouse snitches can provide information to authorities, they aren’t allowed to actively question suspects who have lawyers or who have requested legal representation about the crimes for which they’ve been charged.
Sanders, who accused authorities of intentionally shuffling jailhouse informants to question suspects in violation of their rights, said he had hoped for a stronger deterrent.
“We’re pleased he found there was misconduct,” he said. “But we think the remedy should have been a far stronger one.”