SANTA ANA, Calif. >> A California judge ruled today that a convicted mass killer will be spared the death penalty amid a long-running scandal over authorities’ use of jailhouse informants.
Judge Thomas M. Goethals said 47-year-old Scott Dekraai would not be sentenced to death for killing eight people in a 2011 shooting rampage at an Orange County hair salon.
The ruling leaves only the possibility that Dekraai will be sentenced to life in prison.
While acknowledging the “horrendous” nature of Dekraai’s crime, the judge found that failures by the prosecution team would prevent a fair penalty phase of the trial.
Dekraai’s defense attorneys had argued that repeated failures by sheriff’s authorities to reveal records related to informants show the agency can’t be trusted to turn over evidence favoring their client.
Goethals said authorities repeatedly flouted his orders to produce documents.
“To accept chronic non-compliance with such orders in any case, much less a case of this magnitude, would dangerously undermine the integrity of, and ultimately the community’s respect for, the justice system,” the judge wrote.
“If this case had been prosecuted from the outset by the Orange County district attorney within the most fundamental parameters of prosecutorial propriety, this defendant would likely today be living alongside other convicted killers on California’s death row in San Quentin State Prison,” the ruling said.
The California attorney general’s office had argued there was no indication authorities have evidence that would assist Dekraai in the limited scope of a penalty phase hearing. They also said the former tugboat operator can get fair treatment.
The Sheriff’s Department immediately issued a statement saying Dekraai confessed on the day of the killings — even before he was booked into jail — and the facts of the case supported a death penalty verdict.
“Notwithstanding the issues that were raised by the court’s ruling, we believe the defendant would have received a fair trial during the penalty phase of the criminal proceedings,” the department said. “The decision to remove the death penalty rests at the feet of Judge Goethals and nobody else.”
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said cases where prosecutors are barred from pursuing capital punishment are rare and any decision by Goethals would likely be appealed.
“This case is notable and is being watched because of the severity of the offense, but it is also notable and being watched because of the unparalleled nature of the government misconduct,” he said,
The ruling came during an uproar over the use of jailhouse informants in the Southern California county. The U.S. Department of Justice and state attorney general’s office are each investigating the county’s practices, and prosecutors have seen at least four murder cases upended by the scandal.
Dekraai pleaded guilty to killing his hairstylist ex-wife Michelle Fournier before turning his gun on her co-workers and others at the salon where she worked in Seal Beach. He was arrested minutes after the rampage that left eight dead and one wounded.
Dekraai’s lawyer Scott Sanders began asking questions about the use of jailhouse informants after noticing the same snitch had chatted up Dekraai and another one of his clients.
Authorities can use informants but can’t have them deliberately elicit information from defendants once they are represented by lawyers.
After finding sheriff’s authorities lied or withheld snitch-related information, Goethals yanked the district attorney’s office off Dekraai’s case in 2015. He also ordered authorities to release jailhouse records. Documents have been released bit by bit.
“The concealment has gone on forever,” Sanders said during closing arguments last week. “When people don’t tell the truth, we really have no sense of where it stops.”
Deputy Attorney General Michael T. Murphy said misconduct may have occurred in the case but Dekraai needs to be punished for his crimes. He said the government holds no documents that will prove relevant to penalty hearings focused on the killings and Dekraai’s comments immediately after his arrest.
“The defense has failed to show that any actions of the government in the past have eliminated the possibility of getting a fair penalty trial,” Murphy told the court.
The district attorney’s office called the judge’s ruling disappointing and unprecedented.
Dekraai deserves the death penalty and “would have received a fair trial,” the statement said.
Goethals has said he will not impose punitive measures on authorities but rather seek to determine whether a remedy is required to ensure justice is served.