Judge Thomas M. Goethals during a 2014 case. (Ken Steinhardt / Staff Photographer)
By Sean Emery / Staff Writer
Aug. 17, 2016 – Updated 10:08 p.m.
SANTA ANA – An Orange County judge offered to remove himself from a murder trial Wednesday, only to learn that attorneys on both sides want him to stay on a case that involves allegations of prosecutors falsifying evidence.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals said he believes he can make an impartial ruling, but he wants to prevent even a perception of bias because the case is expected to include testimony from two county prosecutors who also are judge-elects, meaning they’re slated to become Goethals’ colleagues early next year.
“I am not disqualifying myself because I don’t think I would be fair,” Goethals said. “I know I would be fair; it’s the appearance.”
Despite the judge’s recusal, both the prosecutor and the defense attorney involved in the trial indicated that they will submit waivers Thursday that would allow Goethals to remain on the case. It’s unclear whether Goethals will step aside anyway or whether testimony in the case will be scheduled to begin. If Goethals does step aside, it’s possible the case will be heard in Los Angeles.
“I know he has identified a conflict, but I think he can be fair,” Deputy District Attorney Howard Gundy said of Goethals.
The trial of Cole Wilkins, who has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the 2006 death of an off-duy Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, includes allegations that could further damage the already-bruised reputation of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
In the Wilkins case, allegations of misconduct center on two county prosecutors, Mike Murray and Larry Yellin, and their role in allowing reports from the California Highway Patrol to be used in Wilkins’ trial.
On July 7, 2006, Wilkins stole a stove and other appliances from a construction site in Menefee. While driving with those stolen goods on the 91 in Orange County, a stove fell off the back of Wilkins’ unsecured pickup. Though several drivers avoided the stove without incident, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Deputy David Piquette, 34, swerved into a vehicle carrying cement and was killed.
Two CHP investigators determined that Piquette was at fault for the crash because he was driving at an unsafe speed. But according to court records, other CHP administrators later changed those reports to indicate the crash was not Piquette’s fault, a change of finding that made it possible for the D.A.’s Office to charge Wilkins with murder.
In 2008, Wilkins, of Long Beach, was convicted of first-degree murder on the theory that a felony he committed, stealing appliances, directly led to someone’s death. He was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison.
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