The trial for the man charged with killing eight people in a Seal Beach salon will split into two separate phases, with two different sets of jurors asked to decide the ultimate fate of the accused mass murderer, a judge ruled Monday.
The first phase, the actual trial, would begin in June.If convicted, Scott Dekraai faces the death penalty for allegedly walking into Salon Meritage in October 2011 and opening fire, killing his ex-wife and seven others in the county’s deadliest shooting.
His trial has been delayed for months in part because of defense allegations that prosecutors and county law enforcement illegally used jailhouse informants to gather information on Dekraai and others.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said he would again delay the trial, which was scheduled to begin Monday, while he continues hearing testimony on the misconduct allegations. Goethals then made the unusual decision to begin the guilt phase of the trial on June 9 with the penalty phase, if it is necessary, to be held at a later date and heard by a separate jury.
Death penalty trials are normally split into two phases: one to determine guilt and the other to determine whether the defendant should be put to death. But in most cases, the penalty phase immediately follows the guilt phase and is heard by the same jury.
Evidence of Dekraai’s guilt is strong -- he was arrested as he drove from the scene of the shooting and confessed to investigators soon after. Most of the issues in the trial revolve around whether he should be put to death.
Deputy Public Defender Scott Sanders has asked the court to remedy the alleged misconduct -- which he outlined in thousands of pages of motions and exhibits submitted to the court --by dismissing the death penalty against his client, baring the district attorney’s office from trying the case and throwing out evidence resulting from an informant’s conversations with Dekraai in the weeks after he was jailed.
Prosecutors have said they made some mistakes in handing over evidence, but have denied any misconduct.
Goethals has been hearing testimony on the misconduct allegations since last Monday and said he expects to continue hearing evidence for several weeks. This week, multiple Orange County prosecutors, including Dan Wagner, the lead prosecutor on the case, are expected to be called to the stand.
The families of the victims have repeatedly expressed their frustration at the pace of court proceedings, and on Monday some of them again addressed the judge under Marsy’s law, which allows the families of victims to be heard in court during certain proceedings.
“This is too hard on these families and it’s destroying us,” said Paul Wilson, husband of shooting victim Christy Wilson. He lashed out at Dekraai’s defense attorneys for bringing the allegations of jailhouse informants into the case.
“Each time I have to look at [Dekraai] and his defense, I ask myself how they can live with dignity and integrity,” he said.
Goethals reiterated a point he has made in the past.
“I understand why you don’t like what’s happening in terms of some of the legal activity that’s going on,” he said. But “none of this is frivolous. None of this is disingenuous.”
He added: "It's my job to protect the integrity of this system in every single case, whether it's pleasant or not ... that requires me to make decisions sometimes that frustrate people."
Esquivel writes for Los Angeles Times.