Judge Thomas Goethals talks with Orange County Sheriff's attorney Elizabeth Pejean in his court in Santa Ana during a hearing in the Scott Dekraai case on Friday, October 28, 2016. (Photo by Ken Steinhardt, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, shown in October, is hearing the challenge in the Cole Wilkins case. Goethals is also the judge in the Scott Dekraai mass murder case. (Ken Steinhardt/File Photo)

By Tony Saavedra / Staff Writer
Published: Dec. 3, 2016
Updated:   Dec. 4, 2016 – 8:49 p.m.

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office, harshly criticized in a recent appellate court ruling for a systemic failure to protect defendants’ rights and under investigation by the state attorney general and the county grand jury, is facing a new legal challenge that could remove it from a second high-profile murder case in less than two years.

Over the past 3 1/2 years, the controversy swirling around the office has centered on allegations that prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies illegally used jailhouse informants and withheld evidence. Now, the same judge who removed the District Attorney’s Office from a mass murder case is being asked to bar county prosecutors from the retrial of a man accused of causing an accident that killed a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy on the 91 in Anaheim.

Once again, the allegations involve withholding evidence, in this case information that a police report was altered in a way that bolstered the murder charge against convicted burglar Cole Wilkins.

The case started with a stolen stove and what was judged an accident by responding officers. It evolved to include an investigation into changed reports, allegedly hidden evidence and a debate about the lengths law enforcement will go to secure a conviction.

A hearing is underway before Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals on whether the District Attorney’s Office should be booted from the Wilkins case. During the first week of testimony, a retired CHP sergeant testified that his officers initially concluded that the deceased deputy was at fault for the accident that killed him. Former Sgt. Joe Morrison said he changed the original police report to conclude the deputy was not at fault, boosting a murder charge against Wilkins.

Morrison said he did so on his own, without being asked by prosecutors.

But the hearing hinges on whether prosecutors Larry Yellin and Michael Murray, both of whom were elected in June as Orange County Superior Court judges, knew of the changes and withheld them from the defense team during the 2008 trial.

The information might have helped Wilkins, then 29, avoid a felony murder conviction and, with it, a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

Wilkins was awarded a new trial in 2013 because of other issues, and Deputy Public Defender Sara Ross is now trying to get the District Attorney’s Office pushed from the case.

If she wins, the trial could be assigned to state prosecutors. If not, then Wilkins could face the same local prosecutors who sent him to prison.

Prosecutors deny any wrongdoing, according to court documents. The District Attorney’s Office did not respond to recent requests for comment, but the chief of staff previously spoke about prosecutors’ intentions.

“A Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy was murdered on his way to his work, and the OCDA will continue to work to bring justice for his wife and children,” Susan Kang Schroeder said.

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