Attorneys for the man charged with killing eight people in a Seal Beach salon three years ago have accused Orange County prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies of running an unconstitutional jailhouse informant operation that ensnared their client and other inmates.
Scott Dekraai’s public defenders say that the district attorney’s office oversaw an “unchecked and lawless custodial informant program” which resulted in systemic constitutional violations and kept defense attorneys in the dark about the so-called jailhouse snitches.
Dekraai faces the death penalty for allegedly walking into Salon Meritage on Oct. 12, 2011 and opening fire, killing his ex-wife and seven others in the county’s deadliest shooting.
Deputy public defenders Scott Sanders and Lisa Kopelman outlined the allegations in a 505-page motion filed Jan. 31, charging that the prosecution cannot be trusted to put on a fair trial.
The attorneys are asking the court to dismiss the death penalty allegation against Dekraai and bar the district attorney’s office from prosecuting the case.
Assistant Dist. Atty. Dan Wagner called the allegations “scurrilous and unfounded” and said he would respond to the specifics in court.
“It is filled with untruths,” he said.
A hearing on the motion is scheduled Friday in Orange County Superior Court.
Families of the salon victims have grown impatient with constant delays in the trial, but Sanders said that much of the delay stems from his office’s efforts to investigate the use of jailhouse informants. The motion is based on an examination of thousands of pages of records and hundreds of hours of recordings which the court had ordered turned over to the defense last year.
Evidence of Dekraai’s guilt is overwhelming: He was arrested as he drove from the scene of the midday shooting and later confessed to investigators. The main issue in the case has been whether he should be sentenced to die for the crime.
Days after Dekraai was arrested and taken to the Central Jail Complex in Santa Ana, he was placed next to a prisoner referred to in court documents as Inmate F. A few days later, Inmate F told deputies that Dekraai had been talking about the shootings and gave him detailed descriptions of the crime, according to court documents.
Dekraai’s attorneys contend that Inmate F was a well-known informant who had offered information in numerous cases and that Dekraai was deliberately placed in a cell next to him so that the informant could coax him into talking.
In a prior case, Inmate F wrote to a deputy and asked to be moved closer to certain inmates so that “I could work these dudes,” and weeks before Dekraai was arrested, Inmate F wrote to the same deputy: “Garcia, I love my little job I got,” according to the motion.
Prosecutors said Inmate F came forward because he was concerned about the seriousness of Dekraai’s crimes and was not looking for any consideration in his own cases. The informant is facing a possible three-strike sentence for drug, street terrorism and weapons charges dating back to 2006.
One day after the inmate came forward, prosecutors placed a recording device in Dekraai’s cell and recorded him continuously for 132 hours, according to court documents.
“In order to accept the proposition that only a few days after his arrest in the biggest mass murder in Orange County history, Dekraai was coincidentally rehoused in a cell next to one of the government’s most trusted and successful informants, the Court would have to ignore common sense,” the motion says.
Prosecutors have said they don’t plan on calling inmate F to testify in the case against Dekraai but do plan on using the recordings made after the informant came forward. The recordings, which have not been made public, capture Dekraai discussing the crime, his mental state, meetings with former attorneys and conversations with jail mental health staff, according to court records.
Once criminal proceedings have been initiated against a person, government efforts to deliberately elicit statements from them about that crime, including using informants to get them to talk, can violate a defendant’s 6th Amendment right to counsel, experts say.
“If they’re planting the informants or the government has any role in placing them, then essentially the questioning of the defendant, picking their brains, is almost as if the police themselves were in the jail cell. It’s equal to legal interrogation and you have a right to counsel,” said Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi, professor at Santa Clara Law and a co-founder of the Northern California Innocence Project.
Dekraai’s attorneys say that the informant program went well beyond Dekraai’s case and includes multiple high-profile cases, including the case of Daniel Patrick Wozniak, the onetime theater actor who now faces the death penalty for allegedly killing two Orange Coast College students in 2010.
Times staff writer Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.