SANTA ANA, Calif. ― Scott Dekraai, the shooter in the worst mass killing in Orange County, California, history, was sentenced on Friday to eight consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole, rather than receiving the death penalty, because of government misconduct linked to a jail informant program.
The sentence handed down by Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals amounted to one life term for each person Dekraai shot and killed at a Seal Beach salon in 2011. He received an additional seven years to life for the victim who survived his rampage.
Last month, in a rare move, Goethals had excluded the death penalty as a punishment option after concluding that county prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies had engaged in misconduct in the use of the county’s now-notorious jail informant program. The sentencing comes after Goethals held weeks of hearings centered on whether the Orange County Sheriff’s Department could be trusted to turn over all records in the case.
“I have seen some extraordinary events in my time, but nothing like what has unfolded in this courtroom ― crimes and investigative conduct like I’ve seen here,” Goethals said from the bench before he read out the full sentence.
On the day that Dekraai opened fire in the hair salon, the judge said, “the gates of hell flew open” and Dekraai “emerged as the face of evil.” Goethals said that for his crimes, Dekraai deserves to spend the rest of his life “in a cramped cell in a maximum security prison in some forgotten corner of California.”
Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy ― the state prosecutor who took over the Dekraai case after Goethals recused the entire Orange County District Attorney’s office due to misconduct ― told the court that the California Attorney General’s office would not appeal the sentence.
On Friday morning, Attorney General Xavier Becerra said that his office would abide by Goethals’ decision to preclude the death penalty. “Our thoughts turn to the victims and families whose lives were shattered by this senseless act of inhumanity,” he said.
Both survivors of the brutal attack and family members of those who had lost their lives delivered heart-wrenching remarks before the sentence was handed down, often directing their anger at Dekraai who sat before them.
At one point, Paul Wilson, whose wife Christy was killed, spoke about her and the devastation of her loss.
“Sorry, Paul,” Dekraai said.
The courtroom exploded with shouts of of “Shut up!” from survivors and victims’ family members.
“You deserve nothing,” Wilson said to Dekraai. “I hope you find hatred staring back at you in prison.”
During their remarks to the court, several family members thanked Goethals and the state prosecutors who took over the case for their professionalism. Three of them even praised the work of Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who represented Dekraai. Wilson said he saw that Sanders cared about the victims, although he “played for the wrong team.”
Many of the family members said they agreed with the judge’s sentencing decision and were relieved the proceedings were finally coming to an end.
Still, the sentence is extraordinary in the case of a mass murderer. Dekraai almost immediately confessed to police about his role in the 2011 killing. He formally pleaded guilty to the crimes in 2014. It appeared he would swiftly be dispatched to San Quentin’s death row.
But the case against Dekraai was marred by allegations of government wrongdoing. His sentencing had remained in limbo amid allegations that county prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies had improperly used a jailhouse informant in his case and then hid key evidence about that for years.
Just days after the 2011 shooting, county law enforcement moved Dekraai next to a prolific informant in the local jail. The informant, Fernando Perez, questioned Dekraai about his case. Then prosecutors and law enforcement officers interviewed Perez, and a recording device was placed in Dekraai’s cell, capturing more conversations between the pair.
While it is generally legal for law enforcement authorities to use informants to help bolster cases, Sanders has argued that in the particular circumstances, the move was a violation of his client’s constitutional rights. That’s because it is illegal for government agents, including informants, to question or coerce statements out of a defendant who has been formally charged with crimes and is already represented by a lawyer, as Dekraai was.
Prosecutors contended there was no intentional violation because they did not instruct Perez to question Dekraai. While the contents of their conversations remain sealed, court records show that the informant did probe Dekraai about his crimes.
As Sanders requested more information about the contacts between the two men, he discovered that Perez had also been used as an informant against another one of his clients, Daniel Wozniak. Wozniak was sentenced to death last year for the killing of two of his friends in an attempt to fund his wedding.
Prosecutors said it was simply a coincidence that the same informant was used against two of Sanders’ most high-profile clients, but the public defender didn’t believe that. He pushed to uncover what would turn out to be tens of thousands of records about the use of informants inside county jails by prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies.
In a blistering 505-page motion filed in 2014, Sanders argued that hundreds of pages of notes written by Perez and a second informant, Oscar Moriel, demonstrated the existence of an illegal jailhouse snitch program in which sheriff’s deputies allegedly planted informants next to targeted inmates and directed them to poke around for incriminating evidence. Sanders claimed that prosecutors would then present the damning evidence gleaned by the informants in court while they withheld other information that could have been beneficial to defendants ― a violation of the right to due process.
Additional evidence of the informant program came to light over the course of four years and three evidentiary hearings. Sanders’ efforts would ultimately reveal a disturbing trove of long-hidden records: a 25-year-old computerized system that detailed critical information about jail inmates and informants; more than four years of logs created by deputies who managed the informants, which were deleted in 2013 just days before Judge Goethals issued an order requiring their disclosure; and internal sheriff’s department memos, including one boasting of “hundreds of informants.” Altogether, the records detailed a robust and well-established practice of cultivating and utilizing jailhouse informants against unsuspecting defendants.
Nonetheless, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department continues to deny that a jail informant program exists. In recent hearings, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and members of her command and management staff suggested that if there had been any informant-related misconduct by deputies, it was the work of just a handful of rogue officers operating independently of their orders. Three deputies refused to testify at the hearings, invoking their Fifth Amendment right to silence.
Leaders of the sheriff’s department have also said they’ve made changes to how deputies handle inmates in the jail. The Orange County District Attorney’s office has maintained that any misconduct by county prosecutors was unintentional and that the scandal has been overblown.
An Orange County grand jury report, issued this July, largely lined up with both agencies’ sentiments, calling the scandal a “myth” perpetuated by the media.
But legal experts blasted the grand jury’s report and said its findings were just further proof that an independent probe was desperately needed.
California’s 4th District Court of Appeal found last year that misconduct by prosecutors and sheriff’s officials in Orange County was very real and that the “magnitude of the systemic problems cannot be overlooked.” Afterward, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into the use of jailhouse informants in Orange County.
The scandal has led to the unraveling of more than a dozen murder, attempted murder and felony assault cases in the county and threatens to upend countless more. But the sentencing in Dekraai’s case on Friday is arguably the most crushing defeat that the beleaguered district attorney’s office has faced since the scandal broke.
The judge gave Dekraai the opportunity to make a final statement to the court before his sentencing. Dekraai apologized to the victims, the survivors and his own family.
“I was wrong for what I did,” he said. “I am to blame for the complete loss of control. I am sorry.”