The public defender who has helped raise awareness about the illegal use of jailhouse informants in Orange County is raising new questions about one of the most high-profile court cases in county history, the 2008 conviction of double-murderer Skylar Deleon.
But while the actions highlighted by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders indicate the possibility of bad faith by a local prosecutor, transcripts in the 85-page motion filed Wednesday also can be read to support the argument that the prosecutor in Deleon did nothing wrong.
The legal wrangling is part of Sanders’ ongoing defense of convicted murderer Steven Wozniak, who last year was sentenced to death for the 2010 killing of Samuel Herr and Julie Kibuishi. Sanders is asking the judge in the Wozniak, John Conley, to seal all evidence in the case because, in Sanders’ view, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office can’t be trusted to keep the evidence for use in any future appeal. Prosecutors deny that allegation. Judge Conley is expected to consider the matter on May 19.
To make his argument against the county, Sanders wrote that Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy, who prosecuted both Wozniak and Deleon, “defrauded” the Deleon jury that sentenced him to death for throwing a married couple, Thomas and Jackie Hawks, off their 55-foot yacht while they were tied to an anchor.
Sanders said Murphy used a jailhouse witness, three-strike convict Daniel Elias, to testify that while they shared a jail cell Deleon offered to pay him to kill a pair of potential witnesses.
Murphy, transcripts show, assured the jury that Elias “got nothing” for testifying against Deleon, meaning Elias’ testimony came without any promise of a shortened sentence or any other consideration.
“That man, ladies and gentlemen, came in here with his waist chains on, on his way to prison, and he testified anyway. And, that is extraordinary,” Murphy told Deleon’s jury. “He got nothing from it.”
But two months later, Murphy — also serving as prosecutor of Elias — asked the judge to consider Elias’ testimony against Deleon when sentencing him for felony drug and gun charges.
“At the time that Mr. Elias testified, he did so without any promises,” Murphy told Judge Thomas Borris. “There was never a wink, never a nod, an understanding between me and the defense that Mr. Elias would receive anything for his cooperation.”
Murphy continued: “He put his money where his mouth is, so to speak. He testified without any of that. I believe he was sincere. He was tremendously helpful to the People’s case, I believe, and I believe that he essentially put his life at risk by doing that.
“So, based on what he did, at this point I would ask the court to take into consideration in determining (the) appropriate sentence.”
Though Elias faced eight years in prison, Borris set Elias free, saying his time served, four years in Orange County Jail, was punishment enough.
Murphy declined comment on the case.
Sanders argues that the transcripts show Murphy was disingenuous when he told the Deleon jury that Elias was testifying without compensation, even though as prosecutor in Elias’ case he could later urge the judge for a lighter sentence.
“Jurors never knew the real reason why for more than two years Elias had been continuing his sentence until after he testified against Deleon,” Sanders wrote in the brief.
Sanders’ brief does not comment on the idea that the transcript shows Murphy’s statements in both the Deleon trial and the Elias sentencing are consistent, in that he didn’t offer anything to Elias for the testimony.
But such cooperation between prosecutors and defendants isn’t always stated, according to legal experts. Instead, it’s sometimes understood that a convict awaiting sentencing might, in some circumstances, behave in a way that can reduce that sentence. Testimony against another inmate in a high profile case such as the Deleon trial might qualify as such a circumstance.
It’s also unclear why Murphy, who typically prosecutes homicides, took over the Elias case while he was also prosecuting Deleon.
Lawrence Rosenthal, a professor at Dale E. Fowler School of Law at Chapman University, said based on the limited transcripts, Murphy should have told the jury in the Deleon case that he planned to relate Elias’ cooperation to the judge in that case.
“Having the prosecutor tell the judge how much he helped the case, that’s not (getting) ‘nothing,’” Rosenthal said. “It does create an incentive for the witness to try to please the prosecutor.”
Sanders allegation against Murphy is the latest twist in the four-year battle over the withholding of evidence and the use of jailhouse informants by Orange County prosecutors and police. The U.S. Department of Justice, the state Attorney General’s Office and the Orange County Grand Jury are investigating, and the Fourth District Court of Appeal wrote that the county engages in “systemic” misuse of informants and withholding of evidence.
A judge also removed the Orange County District Attorney’s Office from the penalty trial of Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to killing eight and injuring one in a shooting rampage at a Seal Beach salon in 2011.
Deleon and his four accomplices were arrested in 2004 for pretending to buy the Hawks’ yacht, throwing them overboard during a test run off Catalina Island. Deleon used his pregnant wife to lull the couple into lowering their guard.
After his arrest, Deleon and Elias were housed together in a county jail cell equipped with recording devices, according to Sanders’ brief.
Elias told authorities that Deleon offered him millions of dollars to kill two witnesses, a scuba instructor and a notary. Elias reached out to police and prosecutors, but was repeatedly told that he would get nothing for his information, records say.
Elias finally agreed to testify against Deleon at the behest of a deputy jailer. But Elias asked the district attorney’s office to lower his sentence in exchange for information on an unrelated case.
Elias claimed in legal documents that Murphy also promised he would get back the $2,628 that was taken from him at the time of arrest. The money was forfeited under state law.
Elias has been unsuccessful in his numerous attempts to recover the cash.
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