Snitch hearings: Is D.A. trying to put O.C. judge ‘out of business’?
For years, Thomas Goethals has weighed the fates of some of Orange County’s most violent criminals. But since the judge began presiding over heated hearings probing the misuse of jailhouse informants, dozens of prosecutors have steered criminal cases away from his courtroom.
Since February 2014, the district attorney’s office has asked to disqualify Goethals -- a former homicide prosecutor and defense attorney – in 57 cases, according to court records.
In 2011, records show, prosecutors made disqualification requests against Goethals three times. In 2012, zero times. In 2013, only twice.
The surge of disqualifications began around the time the Superior Court judge agreed to allow wide-ranging hearings that brought prosecutors’ mishandling of informant-related evidence under harsh scrutiny.
In a tactic informally called “papering a judge,” prosecutors have repeatedly invoked section 170.6 of the state’s code of civil procedure, which allows lawyers a peremptory challenge to disqualify a judge they deem “prejudiced” against their interests. They do not have to prove prejudice or explain their reasons.
In January 2014, attorneys for mass murderer Scott Dekraai filed a blistering 505-page motion alleging that Orange County jailers and prosecutors had conspired to cover up a long-running program in which jailhouse snitches illegally pumped clients for incriminating information.
The resulting hearings climaxed Thursday in humiliation for elected Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, as the judge – in a rare move -- tossed the D.A.’s office off its most high-profile case. The judge cited prosecutors’ “chronic failure” to turn over evidence to the defense.
In a ruling last August, Goethals harshly criticized the D.A.’s office for failing to turn over exculpatory evidence about informers to defense attorneys. “The events associated with the current hearing do not constitute the district attorney’s finest hour,” the judge wrote.
Goethals, 62, was appointed to the Orange County bench by Gov. Gray Davis in 2002 after 24 years of practicing law, half of that time as a prosecutor, half in private practice. As a prosecutor, he secured a death row sentence for serial killer Rodney Alcala; as a defense attorney, he represented former USC and NFL quarterback Todd Marinovich. His current term on the bench will expire in January 2017. He declined to comment for this story.
Todd Melnik, a Woodland Hills attorney with a client affected by the informant hearings, said the disqualification motions reflected prosecutors’ displeasure with Goethals.
“Everybody sees what the district attorney’s office is doing here,” Melnik said. “They are trying to send him a message that they are really agitated and upset over what he has done.”
Melnik represents Leonel Vega, who was serving life in prison for a 2004 gang slaying in Santa Ana. In the hearings before Goethals, fresh details emerged: Prosecutors had convicted Vega with the use of a paid jailhouse snitch and neglected to tell the defense.
Melnik used the information to scuttle Vega’s murder conviction and win him a 15-year sentence for manslaughter. He could be out of prison in four years.
In his experience in criminal courts, Melnik said, the practice of what he calls “a blanket 170.6” is infrequent, and more commonly used by defense attorneys who think a judge’s rulings are too prosecution-friendly. Sometimes, the practice is aimed at driving a judge off the criminal bench and into civil court.
In the Dekraai hearings, Melnik said, prosecutors appeared upset with the scope of the revelations about the jailhouse informant operation and the number of cases they touch.
“They just want it to stop,” Melnik said. “They got caught cheating by the teacher, and the teacher is Judge Goethals.”
Prosecutor Cyril Yu, who filed papers to disqualify Goethals on several homicide cases in 2014, said he did it after analyzing the facts and legal issues in the cases, but he declined to discuss specifics.
“Whether other people in the office are doing it doesn’t factor into my decision-making,” Yu said.
The district attorney has disqualified Goethals on cases including homicides and sex crimes. According to records, the D.A. papered him in the case against Carlos Bustamante, the former Santa Ana city councilman accused of sexually assaulting women in his county offices. It also papered him in the case of Ashton Sachs, a 19-year-old man accused of murdering his parents as they slept in their San Juan Capistrano mansion.
Susan Kang Schroeder, the D.A.’s chief of staff, said individual deputy district attorneys decided whether to paper a judge. “There’s been no request by anyone in management that any deputy D.A. paper any judge,” she said. “It’s really up to a deputy D.A. to decide what’s in the best interest of the case.” She added, “We are not required to state the reasons, and we don’t.”
She said there was “no organized or concerted effort” to paper the judge, however.
Schroeder disputed the statistics – supplied by the Orange County Superior Court’s public information office – that prosecutors had only papered Goethals five times between 2011and 2013. She said she believed this “anecdotally.”
“We don’t keep those records in our office,” she said.
Gary Pohlson, a Newport Beach-based criminal defense attorney and Goethals’ former law partner, said he had not seen prosecutors paper a judge so relentlessly in nearly 40 years of practicing law. He perceived it as an “orchestrated move” by the D.A.’s office stemming from anger over the Dekraai hearings.
“I’ve been told by a number of individual D.A.’s they’ve been ordered to paper him,” Pohlson said. “I asked them to stop doing it.”
Pohlson represented Isaac Palacios, who faced the possibility of life in prison if convicted of murder for two gang killings. Revelations about the use of a jailhouse informant – which came out in the Dekraai hearings -- damaged the state’s case, and Palacios was released on probation after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in one case.
Goethals used to preside frequently over homicides and sex crimes, Pohlson said, but now his docket is dominated by “white-collar fraud cases.”
“They’re trying to put him out of business,” Pohlson said of the D.A.’s office. “It’s a horrible thing they’re doing.”