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Appeals court upholds a judge's decision to toss prosecutors off a mass-shooting case

Appeals court upholds a judge's decision to toss prosecutors off a mass-shooting case
An appeals court on Tuesday backed a decision by Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, above, to remove the District Attorney's office from prosecuting the penalty phase of a case against a convicted mass killer. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

In a sharply worded, unanimous ruling, an appeals court panel on Tuesday affirmed a judge's decision to toss Orange County prosecutors off a mass-shooting case for their failure to give the defense evidence related to jailhouse informants.

In March 2015, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals removed Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas’ office from prosecuting the penalty phase of the case against Scott Dekraai, a former tugboat captain who had pleaded guilty to murdering his ex-wife and seven others at a Seal Beach salon.

Goethals found the D.A.'s office had a conflict of interest because of its loyalty to the Sheriff's Department, which operated the jails and failed for long periods to divulge troves of informant-related evidence.

The California attorney general's office appealed Goethals' decision, placing the blame for the withheld evidence on the Sheriff's Department. The attorney general's office described the D.A.'s removal as "a remedy in search of a conflict."

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In its ruling Tuesday, a three-judge panel for the 4th District Court of Appeal blasted that contention as "nonsense" and found that Goethals acted within his discretion.

The appeals court found there was "overwhelming evidence" to support Goethals' conclusion that two jailers — Seth Tunstall and Ben Garcia — had lied or willfully withheld evidence in court about informant records.

Asst. Public Defender Scott Sanders, who is seeking to keep Dekraai off death row, has argued that Orange County authorities have violated inmates' rights for years with a wide-ranging informant program.

In Dekraai's case, authorities originally hoped to use incriminating remarks he made to another inmate, a former shot caller with the Mexican Mafia who was seeking a break on a potential life sentence.

The appeals court found that Orange County prosecutors "failed their professional responsibility to properly investigate" the inmate's background, which included prolific work as an informant, and to inform Dekraai.

"Contrary to the Attorney General's attempts to lay all the blame on the OCSD, the OCDA was complicit in the wrongdoing," the ruling said, saying the prosecutors' loyalty to the Sheriff's Department conflicted with their "duty to the rule of law."

The appeals court noted that Goethals ordered authorities to produce informant-related documents in January 2013, but the Sheriff's Department did not reveal the existence of more than 1,000 pages of potentially relevant material until a few months ago.

The appeals court concluded that Dekraai could not receive a fair penalty-phase trial from Rackauckas' office.

With evidentiary hearings ongoing in the case, it is unclear when the penalty phase of the Dekraai case — in which he will receive the death penalty or life in prison — will take place.

"It's so important that the court of appeals recognized just what happened here," Sanders said Tuesday. "This has been an ongoing effort for a long time to keep evidence from Mr. Dekraai and other defendants."

In a statement, the D.A.'s office said it still supports the death penalty for Dekraai but that it is up to the Attorney General's office whether to pursue capital punishment, and whether to appeal the 4th district's decision to the California Supreme Court.

Twitter: @LATchrisgoffard

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