In two weeks, Scott Dekraai, who confessed to killing eight people and wounding another in October 2011, in the worst mass killing in Orange County history, will be sentenced to eight consecutive life terms. And, with that sentence, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals will end a six-year legal nightmare for many of the victims’ family members, who have pleaded with prosecutors to accept the defense offer of a guilty plea in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, but were ignored.
Bethany Webb, whose sister was killed, and whose mother was wounded in the shooting, said, “The judge showed that there was a grown-up in the room. His ruling set my family free, and opened a path for society to free itself of a flawed death penalty and criminal justice system.”
The ruling was a rebuke to the Orange County District Attorney’s office, under the supervision of the beleaguered DA Tony Rackauckas. During the trial, Orange County Public Defender Scott Sanders uncovered evidence that the DA’s office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department had been running a clandestine jail informant program for decades to gather information about people in custody without their knowledge or the knowledge of their attorneys.
It is illegal for prosecutors to attempt to get information from a defendant who has been charged with a crime and has a lawyer. Goethals held a hearing into this prosecutorial misconduct, and based on the evidence, he removed the DA’s office from the penalty phase of the trial and assigned it to the state Attorney General’s office.
Dekraai’s lawyers had argued that as a result of their misconduct, the death penalty should be ruled out because prosecutors couldn’t be trusted to turn over evidence that would help the defense. Instead, they said Dekraai should be sentenced to eight life terms, without the possibility of parole.
“Many of the victim’s family members were willing to accept a sentence of life without parole as a satisfactory resolution of the case but, for all intents and purposes, the district attorney ignored them. Rather than respecting the wishes of those who suffered the grievous loss of their loved one, the DA instead chose to subject them to the painful experience of a trial and the extension of their grief by seeking a death sentence that will prolong the proceedings far beyond the time that would allow the family to begin the difficult process of trying to heal. Not only was this decision fiscally irresponsible, but think of how much heartache the victim’s family would have been spared if the DA had listened and demonstrated compassion for them by accepting a plea of life without parole,” says Aundre Herron, a death penalty attorney and member of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the so-called snitch scandal in November 2016, after former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp and UC Irvine Law School professor Erwin Chemerinsky requested its intervention.
Today’s ruling is another blow to Rackauckas’s legacy as district attorney. He is running for re-election next year, and it’s not clear whether the informant scandal will be a factor in the race.
At least six other murder and attempted murder cases have been jeopardized because of the use of jailhouse informants by Orange County prosecutors and sheriff’s officials.