Thomas Goethals

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals has been the focus of 57 disqualification requests from prosecutors since February 2014. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

By Christopher Goffard
March 13, 2015

For years, Thomas Goethals has weighed the fates of some of Orange County’s most violent criminals. But since the judge began presiding over heated hearings probing the misuse of jailhouse informants, dozens of prosecutors have steered criminal cases away from his courtroom.

Since February 2014, the district attorney’s office has asked to disqualify Goethals — a former homicide prosecutor and defense attorney — in 57 cases, according to court records.

In 2011, records show, prosecutors made disqualification requests against Goethals just three times. In 2012, zero times. In 2013, only twice.

The surge of disqualifications began around the time the Superior Court judge agreed to allow wide-ranging hearings that brought prosecutors’ mishandling of informant-related evidence under harsh scrutiny.

In a tactic informally called “papering a judge,” prosecutors have repeatedly invoked Section 170.6 of the state’s code of civil procedure, which allows lawyers a peremptory challenge to disqualify a judge they deem “prejudiced” against their interests. They do not have to prove prejudice or explain their reasons.

In January 2014, attorneys for mass murderer Scott Dekraai filed a blistering 505-page motion alleging that Orange County jailers and prosecutors had conspired to cover up a long-running program in which jailhouse snitches illegally pumped clients for incriminating information.

The resulting hearings climaxed Thursday in humiliation for elected Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, as the judge — in a rare move — tossed the D.A.’s office off its most high-profile case. The judge cited prosecutors’ “chronic failure” to turn over evidence to the defense.

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