When Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals sentenced the man who killed her sister, wounded her mother, and killed seven others in the worst mass shooting in the county’s history to life in prison without parole last month, Bethany Webb said she at first “didn’t feel anything. I was feeling pretty beat up. I couldn’t find what I was looking for.” But after getting a good night’s sleep, better than any she’d had in six years, she woke up “with a lightness. It wasn’t hanging over us. ‘We’re done,’ I kept thinking. We don’t ever have to go back to court, see him, see his picture in the paper. It just took a couple of days to sink in. It’s freeing.”
Scott Dekraai, who killed eight people, and shot a ninth person in a Seal Beach salon in October 2011, was sentenced to eight terms of life in prison without parole, with an additional 232 years to life for attempted murder and other charges.
The Orange County Register reports that Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals told Dekraai that, “The gates of Hell flew open and you emerged as the face of evil in this community,” before sentencing him.
The sentence ends a six-year legal nightmare for the victims’ family members, many of whom had pleaded with prosecutors to accept the defense offer of a guilty plea in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, but were ignored. Chief among those family members was Webb, whose sister, Laura Webb Elody, a stylist at the Salon Meritage, was killed, and whose mother, Hattie Stretz, was wounded in the shooting. From the beginning, Webb was firm in her opposition to a death penalty trial. “From the first, I hated him with a hatred I have never felt before, and I am not a hate-filled person. But I wasn’t going to let this person who did this horrible thing take my light from me. I knew I had to fight for my humanity.”
Not all of the victims’ family members agreed with Webb, with the group roughly divided for and against seeking the death penalty. But brought together by an unspeakable tragedy, the differing views didn’t prevent them from presenting a united front in the innumerable court appearances they attended over the years.
“This is a club nobody wants to join,” Webb says. “And all the members are completely different. I respect people’s right to grieve and process that grief however they can. The DA [Orange County District Tony Rackauckas] promised he’d get the death penalty, and said this is justice, and you will feel better, and you will get peace, and I never believed that. I never believed that whole mentality that two wrongs make a right. You can’t give me something back by turning me into him. Do you want to be a person that feels better because of the murder of someone?”
Rackauckas persisted in pursuing the death penalty, however, and as the case dragged on, 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. Dekraai was no exception. Prosecutors and deputies used a jailhouse informant to gather evidence against him after he had an attorney, and once it was discovered, obstructed the investigation by failing to turn over evidence, and pleading their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves when called to testify about the informant program on the witness stand.
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.
Still, Dekraai’s lawyers 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.
Webb agreed with the defense, and at one of the innumerable court hearings where the two sides argued over whether the death penalty should be taken off the table, she cried out to the judge about Rackauckas’s insistence that the death penalty was still called for, “He says he’s doing it for my family, but he’s doing it to my family.”
On September 22, Judge Goethals sentenced Dekraai to life in prison. The Register reported that he told the courtroom that if the case had been handled ethically, “I think it is highly likely that a jury would have convicted you and recommended I sentence you to death. I probably would have done exactly that.”
Instead he issued a sentence that Webb said “allows me to bury my sister the way others get to bury their loved ones. I finally have peace.”