Tony Rackauckas

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas interviews a witness during the preliminary hearing into Kelly Thomas’ death in 2012. (FILE: Joshua Sudock, Staff Photographer)

March 16, 2015
Updated March 17, 2015 8:23 a.m.
By Tony Saavedra, Kelly Puente and Tom Berg / Staff Writers

One thing about District Attorney Tony Rackauckas: He’s a street fighter who can take a punch.

But few have landed as punishingly as a judge’s decision to remove him from the prosecution of Orange County’s deadliest killer, Scott Dekraai. It raised a black eye that has caught the attention of legal experts.

Laura Fernandez, who studies prosecutorial misconduct at Yale Law School, called Rackauckas’ handling of the Dekraai case the worst she has ever seen.

“This is a national case,” Fernandez said Monday. “This is the kind of thing where people are going to say, ‘How can this happen in our country?’”

Rackauckas hasn’t backed down. His campaign manager said Monday that Rackauckas plans to run for a fifth term in 2018.

Call it resilience, call it defiance, but this seems to be the Rackauckas way.

As a teen, he dropped out of high school and was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, winding up in juvenile hall. Yet he bounced back to become an attorney, a superior court judge and the county’s chief prosecutor.

As a first-time candidate for district attorney in 1998, his opponent – a veteran prosecutor – blasted him as soft on crime. Rackauckas won by a landslide.

As district attorney, he’s withstood many scandals, investigations and accusations of political cronyism. Yet each time, he’s landed on his feet.

Now, in his 18th year as district attorney, on the eve of his 72nd birthday on Wednesday, this question echoes through county courthouses and beyond:

Can Rackauckas bounce back again?

INFORMANTS

About 20 people were inside the Salon Meritage hair salon in Seal Beach on Oct. 12, 2011, when a killer with three handguns walked in about 1 p.m. and started shooting.

Police caught Dekraai a half-mile from the salon, where eight people, including his ex-wife, were killed.

He told officers, “I know what I did.”

He pleaded guilty.

The only major unresolved issue was whether he’d get the death penalty. That is, until defense attorneys learned that shortly after the tugboat operator’s arrest jailers planted a microphone in Dekraai’s cell, adjacent to one of the county’s most prolific paid informants.

The moves violated constitutional law against seeking incriminating statements from a defendant who has retained an attorney – and jeopardized the possibility of the death penalty sentence.

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