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Scott Dekraai, who killed eight people and wounded another in the worst mass murder in the history of Orange County, pleaded guilty on Friday to eight counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder. According to the Voice of OC‘s coverage, families of the victims were pleased with the plea — “but some doubted [Dekraai’s] remorse.” That seems on target; I doubt it too. But I wonder about this plea deal’s circumstances — especially its timing. Who got what out of this deal — and why?
Obviously, I cannot be objective about this matter. I am the sole candidate running against District Attorney Tony Rackauckas — the incumbent under whose leadership the Orange County District Attorney’s office allegedly mangled not only this case, but several others as well, through the improper use of jailhouse informants to obtain self-incriminating testimony from someone represented by legal counsel.
(If this strikes you as OK, despite it being a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, consider this: jailhouse informants have been known to lie — especially when they get rewarded for their “work,” be it honest or not. That means that their information may be used to innocent people — and when you convict someone innocent, you may keep the people who are actually guilty out of jail.)
I find this whole plea deal fishy. I think that I would have the same reaction if I were just an impartial observer; if you doubt that, that’s understandable. Let me try to convince you with a closer look.
Did Dekraai just bargain away his right to trial for … nothing?
On its surface, this plea deal is weird. Dekraai must want something, at this point — right? Maybe he wants not to be put to death; maybe he wants to be put on Death Row, with its preferred treatment and far larger allocation of legal resources to protect his rights until his execution — so long as he isn’t ever actually executed. (And, let’s face it — it’s unlikely that he ever will be.)
Here’s the problem: I don’t see what Dekraai gains from this plea bargain as depicted by the DA. His lead attorney, the extremely impressive Public Defender Scott Sanders, made one of his few false moves in this case when he lapsed from his role as the anti-corruption crusader who had compiled a damning record on jailhouse informants. For a while, he became a typical defense attorney — the kind who generally tries to cram an unlikely halo, so far as is possible, down onto the crown of his client’s head.
According to Sanders:
This was a very personal decision for Mr. Dekraai. … He felt he owed at a minimum to let the families know he should spend the rest of his life in prison. And that he will never challenge that on appeal.
Well, ISN’T THAT NICE OF MR. DEKRAAI, HUH? (Note for the sarcasm-impaired: that was sarcasm.) I doubt that Dekraai is really thinking that much about how much he “owes” to the families. And the notion that that is what motivated his taking this plea deal defies belief.
Sanders suggests in his statement that Dekraai will definitely spend life in prison without parole, rather than being executed. (This gives up what might seem like a better possible outcome for his client, even if not for the rest of us: a plea of mental incompetence.) But, despite Sanders’s statement, the press reports that the death penalty is explicitly NOT ruled out for now. That decision, we’re told, “will not come until June, when an unprecedented hearing is completed on the conduct of the Orange County district attorney’s office” regarding the jailhouse informant story. So either Sanders is unduly optimistic — or some private arrangement was made with him, on behalf of his client, but hasn’t yet been revealed.
If there is anything to the charges Sanders compiled, then it would be shocking if Judge Thomas M. Goethals — the other main player in this case who has come off extremely impressively — would give Dekraai the death penalty. The death penalty is the only thing that the prosecution wants here that the Judge can refuse to grant. Giving the DA a complete win, death penalty and all, after prosecutorial misconduct would be a huge surprise.
District Attorney Rackauckas has a bad habit of playing to the public thirst for harsh punishment, even if it means proudly adopting unconstitutional actions. (The anti-gang ordinance and the sex offenders in parks ordinance are two examples: obviously unconstitutional, but good politics — and we know which one of those the DA cares about more.) Rackauckas assures us that “there will be ‘no compromise’ and his prosecution team will ‘not change our opinion’ on seeking the death penalty.” I think that either he’s lying outright or he’s shading the truth. (Well, it’s true that the prosecution team may not “change its opinion” — but it’s the deal they make, rather than their opinion, that matters.)
Someone must have wanted something out of this deal for it to happen — and, as I suggest above, if the death penalty is really on the table then that someone probably wasn’t Dekraai. (And if it isn’t still on the table, then Rackauckas is lying to the public. I wonder if the media will pick up on it.)
So who else was motivated to make a deal? The likeliest candidates are (1) Sanders and the Public Defenders office and (2) Rackauckas himself.
What would Sanders have wanted, and gotten, out of such a deal?
Sanders, the lead Public Defender, certainly had a motivation to make a good deal. If we presume that his interest was not personal advancement — and let’s make that presumption, because he seems really clean — then what would he want? He might want concessions from the DA’s office that are beneficial to his other clients — or to the Public Defender’s office as a whole. (If Rackauckas wins re-election a month from now, you may never know about the content of such a deal; if I win, and if I’m able to divulge it, you will.)
If Sanders’s interests as a top Public Defender are truly to serve justice, as I imagine they are, then he or others could get such a deal from me without dragging the Dekraai case into it. (I’m campaigning on having a DA’s office that DOESN’T violate the Constitution and other laws.) On the other hand, if he’s just dealing in order to get guilty defendants off on technicalities and such, then he couldn’t get a deal from me, period. (Seriously, this is a pretty straightforward case. What’s the worst that happens here regarding Dekraai — aside from the blowback from any unconstitutional OCDA activities? That he spends life in prison without parole? That’s not such a bad outcome that it would be worth wheeling and dealing to avoid it!)
For Sanders to take this deal, I think that he must have gotten something really good. And that means that Rackauckas must have given up something really good. Why would he do that?
What would Rackauckas have wanted, and gotten, out of such a deal?
Here’s where we start to get somewhere. On its face, this is a great deal for Rackauckas — not as a District Attorney responsible to the people of Orange County, but as a candidate. In fact, it’s a good enough deal that he might have given away a whole lot in order to obtain it. And if he did so, I want to know what he it was that gave away.
First of all, Rackauckas gets to claim (even if it’s falsely) that the death penalty for Dekraai is still on the table — so he can still, even after botching the job of doing the job constitutionally, say that he’s “tough on crime.”
Second, Rackauckas gets to take the now-embarrassing Dekraai case off of the front pages in the month before the election. He got a guilty plea — and that sounds good! He supposedly got it without offering Dekraai anything — and that sounds even better! So, presumably, he now wants to press to go away and stop talking about the entire jailhouse informant scandal now, because the most prominent case affected by it is settled. Trying hard to be objective about it, as a political observer I have to say that that sounds like a really good deal for him! And so I have to wonder what Rackauckas gave up to get that deal. (I doubt that Sanders accepted it just out of love and respect for the OCDA’s office!)
Third, Rackauckas avoids the humiliation of Judge Goethals taking the Dekraai out of the OCDA’s office and giving it to the State Attorney General for prosecution. (The speculation a few weeks back was that this would be the likely outcome.) That would be an extremely damaging headline, especially if it happened shortly before the June 3 election. If the case is closed, then that won’t happen.
Fourth, while the hearing over the unconstitutional misdeeds of the District Attorney’s office in the Dekraai case — and in others, which apparently involve high-placed gang members — will continue on in the weeks to come, Judge Goethals’s decision won’t come out until mid-June. That is safely AFTER the date of the election in which he faces me. Again, he avoids a damaging headline coming at the worst time.
Finally (and this paragraph is an update added on Monday May 5), let’s remember that absentee voting begins this week. That means that, thanks to the timing of the plea deal, voters filling out their absentee ballots will have at the forefront of their mind the story that “Tony Rackauckas got the spree killer Scott Dekraai to plead guilty to his crimes” — and not the story that “Tony Rackauckas’s shoddy and illegal practices as OCDA jeopardized the prosecution of Dekraai.”
It seems to me that the person who stands to gain the most from Friday’s plea deal is District Attorney Rackauckas himself! I WANT TO KNOW WHAT HE GAVE UP IN ORDER TO GET THIS DEAL. I want to know as his opponent, of course, but more than that I want to know as a citizen and as an online journalist and as an opponent of public corruption.
I want to know what District Attorney Rackauckas is hiding from the public — especially the voting public.
But what does Rackauckas have to worry about?
Here’s what confuses me a little: the Rackauckas campaign is trying to give every indication that I am not a serious threat to defeat him. Well, if that’s true, then why make this deal — and seemingly lie about it being one-sided in his favor — at all? He shouldn’t need this deal if he’s invulnerable!
I’m starting to wonder if what people have been telling me privately is true: that Rackauckas’s private polling numbers or other information suggest that he’s more vulnerable than he admits — and that I actually could beat him next month!
I can certainly see why Mr. Rackauckas would want to hide that, if it’s true. But I cannot imagine being the sort of person who would bargain away justice for political gain. (I can, however, imagine being the sort of person who would prosecute someone over foregoing their public duties for personal gain.)
Something about the Dekraai plea bargain doesn’t add up at all — and the most reasonable explanation seems to be that I’m doing a lot better with my gutty little bare-bones campaign than anyone thinks.
I’m sure that there must be a good reason that I am not being interviewed about Dekraai in the wake of this seemingly political development. At least now that I’ve written all of this out, there’s less need for journalists to interview me directly. But if they’re not asking the same questions that I’m asking, then they’re being pretty poor journalists, because something seems to be up here — and the public should know what it is before June 3.