Aug. 18 (UPI) -- The man responsible for Orange County, Calif.'s, deadliest mass shooting avoided the death sentence Friday after a judge ruled prosecutorial misconduct made such a determination impossible.
Dekraai, 47, pleaded guilty in 2014 to gunning down eight people including his ex-wife at the hair salon where she worked in Seal Beach in October, 2011. Dekraai's motive was anger over a custody dispute. Dekraai was apprehended minutes after the shooting, was identified by eye-witnesses and never denied he was the shooter.
Despite the overwhelming evidence against his client, Dekraai's attorney, Scott Sanders, succeeded in shifting the focus in the case away from the crime and onto the conduct of the Orange County Sheriff's Office and county prosecutors. Sanders repeatedly argued before Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals that prosecutors used bogus tactics to secure damaging information about his client and others, and had repeatedly suppressed evidence that could have proved helpful in mounting a defense.
At the center of the alleged misconduct was a jailhouse informant ring Sanders said was run by deputies and knowingly supported by prosecutors that saw certain inmates give damaging testimony against others in exchange for preferential treatment by jail guards. He said dozens or even hundreds of other cases could have been tainted by testimony using the system.
After the allegations, county prosecutors recused themselves and state prosecutors stepped in to handle the case.
A separate grand jury empaneled to investigate the allegations found them to be without merit, but Goethals said the level of prosecutorial misconduct Sanders unearthed was serious enough he'd become convinced the county could not provide an environment that would produce a fair sentencing verdict. He said failing to step in and end the trial before the death penalty phase would have been "unthinkable."
In California, capital punishment verdicts are rendered by a jury, not the judge, in a separate phase of the trial.
Prosecutors have the option of appealing the judge's ruling, but have not said whether they intend to do so.
Family members of the victims were split on whether Dekraai should be put to death, with several, including Dekraai's former brother-in-law, speaking out against the DA's office and sheriff's department.
County leaders denied wrongdoing in this and other cases and criticized Goethals for failing to make a death sentence possible for an admitted mass murderer.
"The facts in this case clearly supported a death penalty verdict," the sheriff's department said in a statement. "Notwithstanding the issues that were raised by the court's ruling, we believe the defendant would have received a fair trial during the penalty phase of the criminal proceedings. The decision to remove the death penalty rests at the feet of Judge Goethals and nobody else."
The California attorney general's office and the U.S. Justice Department are still conducting separate investigations into the misconduct allegations.