Appeals court considers removal of Orange County DA's office from case over misconduct allegations

  • Print.

A California appeals court considered arguments yesterday over whether an Orange County judge was right to remove the entire district attorney’s office from a high-profile case, the Orange County Register reported Tuesday.

The oral arguments held yesterday in California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal revolved around allegations made by a public defender that the DA’s office has for years been covering up misconduct by the Orange County sheriff’s department. Defense attorney Scott Sanders alleged that the county’s jailers have been planting jailhouse informants next to high-profile defendants for years and promising them lenience in exchange for information. This violates a U.S. Supreme Court decision from the 1960s, Massiah v. United States, which held that this violates the defendant’s right to have counsel present at a police questioning.

Prosecutors, Sanders said, likely knew about the practice but have not turned over related evidence, in violation of Brady v. Maryland. The allegations were made in the trial of the worst mass shooter in Orange County history, Scott Dekraai, who killed eight people because he was angry at his ex-wife over child custody and support.

California trial judge Thomas Goethals, after reading Sanders’s extensive documentation of these allegations, removed the DA’s office from the case and replaced it with the California Attorney General’s office. Goethals cited “serious, ongoing discovery violations” by the DA’s office, but stopped short of agreeing that the evidence showed “outrageous government misconduct.”

The Attorney General’s office appealed the ruling—which was the subject of Monday’s oral arguments. The office argued that Goethals erroneously relied on problems within the Sheriff’s Department in his ruling that the DA’s office had a conflict of interests. The Orange County Public Defender’s office answered, via court papers, that the record shows Goethals’ ruling was the result of “careful consideration and deliberation.”

In court, Deputy Attorney General Theodore Cropley referred several times to Goethals being “frustrated,” causing 4th District Judge Richard Fybel to say he felt it was a mistake to attribute the ruling to frustration. According to Voice of OC, Fybal described the ruling as “very careful and analytical.” Another judge on the three-judge panel, Kathleen O’Leary, reportedly expressed concerns about how the DA’s office would perform if put back on the case.

Judges reportedly asked Cropley about recusing only the prosecutors involved in the suspect prosecution, but Voice of OC said Cropley declined to respond.

By law, the appeals court must rule within 90 days. That ruling might be appealed, but it might also end the lengthy wait for justice victims have endured. Dekraai has pleaded guilty to the murders, but has not been sentenced. As KABC noted, the fifth anniversary of the crimes took place earlier this month.

There’s other fallout from the case. Though no one from the Sheriff’s Department or the DA’s office has been fired or formally disciplined, implicated sheriff’s deputies have been taking the Fifth Amendment in certain cases believed to be related, the Orange County Register has previously reported. This has stopped or slowed convictions of people accused of serious crimes, as the ABA Journal reported in May.

And the Orange County Public Defender’s office asked the California Supreme Court earlier this year to rule on a related issue: Whether the DA’s office may lawfully ask to disqualify Goethals from murder cases assigned to him, the Orange County Register reported. The DA’s office has said prosecutors are acting on their own, not according to a coordinated campaign, and that the high court should not take the case.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.