A Superior Court judge on Wednesday ruled that the Orange County District Attorney’s team acted so badly in the case of a defendant blamed in the death of a sheriff’s deputy that he dismissed a charge of first degree murder.
Judge Thomas Goethals decided that ex-construction worker Cole Wilkins, who has spent the last 11 years in jail, can at the most be re-tried on a harder-to-prove charge of second degree murder in the wake of a 2006 traffic accident caused when a stolen stove fell off Wilkins’ truck.
Goethals said he based his decision on the “serious misconduct” of former prosecutor Michael Murray who failed to act when notified that a traffic report was altered in way that helped the prosecution. The original report was shredded and its existence was never disclosed to the defense or heard by the jury in Wilkins’ first trial.
“When the trial prosecutor was repeatedly put on notice that there were irregularities involving the investigation of his case—twice by members of his own prosecution team–he was constitutionally obliged to address the issue. He did not,” Goethals said of Murray in his five-page ruling.
Murray is now an Orange County Superior Court judge and, as such, cannot comment on the case.
Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, said Wednesday the office disagrees with the court’s findings and interpretation of the law and is considering an appeal.
“What changed today is the Orange County District Attorney’s Office’s (OCDA) ability to pursue a first degree murder charge,” Schroeder said.
“What has not changed is the OCDA’s resolve to hold Cole Wilkins accountable for the death of Los Angeles Sheriff Deputy David Piquette and depriving his wife and young family of a lifetime together.”
Evidence presented in court shows that following Piquette’s death, California Highway Patrol administrators changed a report that benefited Wilkins and destroyed the original document. Those officials also created a second report that benefited prosecutors.
“The trial prosecutor compounded the problem by essentially ignoring information he received that should have put him on notice of law enforcement’s misconduct,” Goethals wrote.
Goethals stressed that his decision was not meant to punish the district attorney’s office, but to assure a fair trial for Wilkins.
The decision Wednesday deals another setback to the embattled district attorney’s office, hobbled during the past four years by controversy over its use of jailhouse informants and the withholding of evidence.
The scandal has sparked separate investigations by the Orange County Grand Jury, the state Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice. An appeals court has described local prosecutors’ misconduct as “systemic.”
Goethals is the same judge who removed the district attorney’s office in 2015 from the penalty trial of mass murderer Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to killing eight and injuring one in a shooting rampage at a Seal Beach salon.
His latest ruling involves a complicated case that began when Wilkins stole large kitchen appliances from a house under construction in Riverside County in the early morning hours of July 7, 2006. Wilkins drove about 60 miles when the boxed stove fell out of his truck about 5 a.m. on the 91 Freeway in Anaheim. Wilkins didn’t know the stove was gone and kept driving until he was pulled over miles away by an angry motorist.
Drivers swerved to miss the stove, including several who didn’t have accidents. Piquette, on his way to work, collided with a cement truck and was killed. The original report on the incident indicated Piquette’s driving was the primary cause of the accident. The second report reversed that conclusion and said other factors caused the accident.
Piquette’s death sparked a public wave of mourning by the community and his brethren in law enforcement.
Wilkins was charged with first-degree murder on the theory that he caused Piquette’s death while in the commission of a felony. He was convicted in 2008 and sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison. In 2013, that conviction was overturned by an appellate court based questions concerning jury instructions.
In Wilkins’ new hearing, Goethal’s ruling means that prosecutors must show that Wilkins acted with a conscious disregard for human life – which legal experts say is harder to prove. If convicted, Wilkins would be eligible for parole 10 years sooner than if convicted of a first-degree charge.