Originally posted at 12:42 p.m. March 24, 2014. Edited with new details.
By PAUL ANDERSON
City News Service
The trial of a man accused of carrying out the worst mass killing in Orange County history will be split into two parts while a defense attorney presses allegations of misconduct by prosecutors in an effort to spare his client from a possible death sentence, a judge ruled today.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals scheduled a June 9 trial date for Scott Evans Dekraai. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, which would require a penalty trial phase, during which a jury is asked to recommend death or life in prison without the possibility of parole for a defendant.
Goethals said if Dekraai is convicted of carrying out the killings, there would be a delay before a penalty phase is held, and a different jury would be selected for that portion of the case.
If the judge agrees with a defense attorney and removes the death penalty as a sentencing option, there will be no need for a penalty phase.
Defense attorney Scott Sanders contends that prosecutors have violated the rights of Dekraai and other defendants who are awaiting trial through the use of jailhouse informants.
Separating the two phases of the trial will speed up the legal process, something victims' family members complained about again today to Goethals. Several relatives of the victims told the judge they are frustrated with Sanders' attempts to save his client from the ultimate punishment.
Sanders told Goethals that his client "has listened to family" members, "and he's asked us to agree to the separate trials."
If the District Attorney's Office "forgoes the death penalty," Dekraai would agree to plead guilty to life in prison without the possibility of parole and would waive any appeals, Sanders said.
Goethals expects the guilt phase of Dekraai's trial would take just a couple of weeks.
"By the beginning of July, most likely, we'll have verdicts," Goethals said.
"I've got to be ecstatic about a June 9 trial date," said Paul Wilson, whose wife was among the eight killed at Salon Meritage in Seal Beach on Oct. 12, 2011.
Wilson scolded Sanders in court this morning.
"Shame on you, Mr. Sanders, shame on you," Wilson said. "As far as I'm concerned, you stand in the same shoes as that coward (Dekraai) next to you."
Butch Fournier, whose sister, 48-year-old Michelle Fournier, was among those killed, said he was "all for the bifurcation" of the trials of his former brother-in-law.
Fournier added, however, that he dreads a "double trial," and that "it scares the hell out of me" to have to hear the details of the killings.
Goethals defended Sanders' motions, but said he understood how frustrated the victims' families have become.
"The legal process is a difficult one and it is painstaking," Goethals said. "And I'm not going to patronize any of you and say I know how you feel, because I don't ... I don't blame any of you for how you feel, but the record should be clear. All the lawyers in this case are ethical and experienced ... None of this is frivolous. None of this is disingenuous."
Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner began testifying this afternoon about how his office has investigated Sanders' allegations of government misconduct in the use of jailhouse snitches, who gathered evidence against other inmates, including Dekraai.
Much of Sanders' questioning involved a meeting Wagner and other top prosecutors had with Deputy District Attorney Erik Petersen, who defense attorneys have accused of withholding evidence in trials involving state and federal crackdowns on jail violence stemming from a war over control of the Mexican Mafia in Southern California.
Wagner testified that Petersen received evidence about one of the jailhouse snitches after a trial, which was not turned over to a defense attorney as the prosecutor is obligated to do. Wagner and others met with Petersen for a couple of hours a few weeks ago to discuss the allegations against him in Sanders' motion, Wagner testified.
During the trial, defense attorney Rob Harley complained that he was only given four pages of notes from the informant but suspected there were more pages. After Harley's client was convicted, Petersen received 196 pages of notes, which were not turned over to Harley as required, Wagner testified.
Petersen blamed federal investigators who are jointly working on the crackdowns on jail violence, saying they did not turn over their evidence to state prosecutors, Wagner testified.
"That doesn't excuse it, you still have to turn it over," Wagner said.
When Sanders asked Wagner if he believed Petersen's explanation, the prosecutor said federal prosecutors are "inclined to be protective of their information ... sometimes they're arrogant when it comes to state cases and state court."
Wagner testified that he did not think Petersen's mistakes were malicious.
"I think there's some (evidence exchange) problems in his cases, but I don't think they were born ... out of an intent to do wrong, an intent to break the rules," Wagner testified.
Goethals recently came to the same conclusion when Petersen failed to turn over evidence to defense attorneys in a pending jail beating case, but the judge still kicked the prosecutor off of the case.
Wagner recommended to his supervisors that Petersen appears to have too heavy a caseload, which could explain the problems with turning over evidence to defense attorneys.
Wagner also explained that he just hasn't had enough time to thoroughly go over the defense's allegations regarding the jail violence cases and has mostly focused on the allegations against the team prosecuting Dekraai.
Sanders also grilled Wagner on why more notes weren't taken during his meetings with Petersen about the defense's allegations. Goethals ordered Wagner and his office to turn over those notes from the meetings by tomorrow morning, when Wagner will continue testifying.
Killed at Salon Meritage in addition to Christy Wilson and Dekraai's ex- wife were the salon owner Randy Lee Fannin, 62; Victoria Ann Buzzo, 54; Lucia Bernice Kondas, 65; Laura Lee Elody, 46; Michele Daschbach Fast, 47; and David Caouette, 64.
Hattie Stretz, 75, was shot but survived her injuries.