The case of a Costa Mesa man accused of brutally murdering two college students five years ago moved a step closer to trial Tuesday when an Orange County judge denied a defense attorney's request to throw prosecutors off the case.
Public defender Scott Sanders has recently crusaded against the Orange County district attorney's office, arguing its prosecutors have for decades targeted high-profile defendants with jailhouse informants and then withheld evidence they're obligated to turn over to defense attorneys.
In March, Sanders convinced a judge remove the district attorney's office from the murder case against mass shooter Scott Dekraai. In that instance, Judge Thomas Goethals found prosecutors indeed failed to turn over important evidence related to Dekraai's taped statements to an informant. The attorney general's office is now handling the case and appealing Goethals' decision.
On Tuesday, however, Sanders was unable to convince Judge John Conley that the same was true in the people's case against Daniel Wozniak, a 31-year-old aspiring community theater actor accused of killing two Orange Coast College students in 2010.
According to grand jury testimony, Wozniak admitted to police that he shot 26-year-old Army veteran Sam Herr in order to steal $50,000 and then dismembered the body to hide it.
Prosecutors allege Wozniak then lured Herr's friend, Juri "Julie" Kibuishi, to Herr's apartment to kill her and then staged her body to look as if Herr sexually assaulted her.
Sanders has not accused prosecutors of withholding evidence specifically related to Wozniak. Instead, he's argued the district attorney's office routinely doesn't inform defense attorneys about evidence gleaned from jailhouse informants and typically denies access to files on the informants that could be used to question their credibility under cross examination.
"There's a lot of problems here, tremendous problems," Sanders said.
Sanders cited a handful of cases dating back decades where he believes prosecutors failed to turn over relevant evidence about snitches.
Prosecutors have denied any intentional wronging, saying any violation on their part was a result of an oversight or error in judgment.
Conley questioned whether Sanders was cherry-picking a few cases out of the tens of thousands that pass through the district attorney's office to support the idea of a pattern.
"It's like a truck driver who drives 300,000 miles a year is going to have more accidents than you or I who drives 12,000 miles a year," he said.
Sanders replied he believes he's only uncovered the tip of the iceberg.
Prosecutor Matt Murphy argued that even if Sanders' accusations are true, he's yet to show how they've affected Wozniak's trial.
Murphy said he has turned over any and all evidence he has in this case. He has also agreed not to use any statements from a jailhouse informant who spoke to Wozniak.
"Daniel Wozniak has been treated fairly," Murphy said. "He will continue to be treated fairly going forward."
Conley ultimately decided the district attorney's office could stay on the case.
"The court is convinced the defendant can receive a fair trial," he said.
The trial is slated to begin Friday, but before it can start, Conley still has to rule on another major motion.
Based on many of the same accusations about informants, Sanders has requested Conley bar the death penalty as a possible sentence.
He has asked for the opportunity to hold a hearing on the topic. The list of witnesses he hopes to call includes Murphy, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.