In the United States, a cornerstone of our criminal justice system is that each defendant is entitled to a fair trial. This is so important that a man who has been convicted of mass murder in Southern California will avoid the death penalty because the judge in his case determined that the defendant would not be able to have a fair penalty trial due to prosecutorial misconduct.
The decision to take the death penalty off the table was handed down by Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals on Friday. The defendant in the case, Scott Dekraai, had previously pleaded guilty to eight counts of murder with special circumstances as well as one count of attempted murder for shooting multiple people at a Seal Beach hair salon in 2011. According to the American Bar Association Journal, “[t]he ruling is the result of years of hearings investigating whether the Orange County Sheriff's Department, which runs the jails, has been systematically violating defendants' constitutional rights.” Dekraai's public defender had noticed that the same informant was being used in two of his cases, one of which was Dekraai's. After looking further into the issue, his research suggested that “the Sheriff's Department had for years been planting jailhouse informants next to high-value defendants already represented by counsel.” The ABA Journal points out that doing this would violate a defendant's right to counsel under Massiah v. United States and failing to turnover documents could violate Brady v. Maryland.
The Orange County Register reports the judge stated on Friday, “'This court finds the prosecution team is unable or unwilling' to provide the evidence to ensure Dekraai would get a fair penalty trial.” In addition, the Judge stated that “it would have been ‘unconscionable and perhaps even cowardly' not to sanction local prosecutors and sheriff's deputies for improperly using jailhouse informants and hiding evidence, causing him to consider a decision that had once been ‘unthinkable.'”
According to the Register, “the judge's decision is a measure of how Orange County's justice system has been damaged by accusations that law enforcement has for as many as 30 years secretly and illegally used jailhouse informants to cajole confessions from inmates represented by attorneys. Information about those informants was routinely withheld from the defense, courts have ruled.”
Dekraai's case isn't the only one that has been affected by the “snitch scandal.” According to the Los Angeles Times, other convicted killers have also had to be retried because of it. Another man affected by the scandal is Henry Rodriguez. According to the Times, Rodriguez was convicted of killing his pregnant girlfriend. It was at his second trial (his first conviction was overturned on appeal for a Miranda violation) that the prosecution used evidence provided by an informant. Rodriguez's attorney argued against admitting testimony of the informant because when the informant was talking to Rodriguez he was "acting at the government's behest," thus violating Rodriguez's right to have counsel present. Despite this argument, Rodriguez was convicted. However, that conviction was vacated by the Judge Goethals –the same judge handling the Dekraai case- finding that “prosecutors failed to disclose important information about [the informant's] background.” The Court of Appeals subsequently upheld this ruling and, in June 2017, ordered a new trial for Rodriguez.
The death penalty is the most serious punishment that can be imposed by the state. In the U.S., many states do allow executions for certain crimes, including in Washington. However, Governor Jay Inslee put a moratorium on executions in 2014 and he and the Attorney General have made moves to abolish the death penalty altogether.