Orange County Judge Thomas Goethals, a former prosecutor, has been presiding over criminal cases in his district for many fruitful years. It was all going well in his courtroom until he started objecting to prosecutors` questionable use of jailhouse informants, a practice he discovered in several of the cases brought before him.
Simply put, the prosecutors were caught “cheating” in order to secure convictions, and they didn’t like it one bit. Ever since the Judge started acting on his concerns that jailhouse informants were being misused, the D.A.’s office has asked to disqualify Goethals in over 50 cases. This tactic of steering cases away from a Judge’s courtroom is commonly referred to as “judge papering.”
Goethals Papered Systematically, No Justification Needed
According to records, requests to disqualify Goethals had been scarce (one or two a year) until he started shedding light on the mishandling of evidence obtained from informants.
Section 170.6 of California’s code of civil procedure can be invoked to disqualify a Judge that prosecutors deem prejudiced in a specific case. The legislation does not require prosecutors to prove that the Judge is prejudiced, and so, Judge Goethals has been vulnerable to retaliation from local prosecutors.
Defense Attorneys Kept in the Dark
At the height of the conflict with Orange County prosecutors, Goethals described their failure to turn over evidence to the defense as “chronic.” In a typical example of the situations that initiated the controversy, it came to light that defendant Leonel Vega had been convicted and sentenced to life thanks to the use of a paid jailhouse informer, a fact of which the defense had not been informed.
Tired of observing this type of behavior on a regular basis, Goethals decided to voice his disagreement in his court rulings, stating that some of the hearings regarding the misuse of informants did not “constitute the District Attorney’s finest hour.”
Orders from Above?
Meanwhile the D.A.’s chief of staff said that there was no request from management to paper the Judge, and that each deputy D.A. had done it of his own accord. But it would be naive to believe that his being papered 57 times in little over a year has no connection with the fact that the Judge made a recently elected District Attorney look very bad when he threw the D.A.’s office off a very high-profile case.
In fact, Gary Pohlson, Goethals’ former law partner, claims that he has “been told by a number of individual D.A.s they’ve been ordered to paper him.” Pohlson has a direct interest in the matter, because one of his clients was acquitted after the misuse of jailhouse informants came to light in the course of the Dekraai hearings, which have become famous for the damage they did to the D.A.’s office’s reputation.
Symptoms of a Corrupt Legal System
Unfortunately, none of this is surprising. In my experience, judges, rightly or wrongly, believe that their reelection campaign cannot survive a challenge by the District Attorney’s office or law enforcement unions.
Judge Goethals found out that the D.A.’s office and law enforcement had been lying, committing perjury, and violating defendants’ rights on a regular basis. None of the individuals involved in the scandal were held in contempt nor were they investigated for perjury or any other act.
The Judge simply decided to steer the D.A.’s office off the case for their bad behavior. In retaliation, the D.A.’s office “papered” that judge in 46 of 49 murder cases assigned to his courtroom between February 2014 and September 2015, which hurt the judge’s reputation within the county.
But what made Judge Goethals so special? Why aren’t other Judges calling D.A. offices on those same violations? One of the reasons for this tolerance is that judges overwhelmingly tend to be ex-prosecutors. This creates an ‘us vs. them’ tribal mentality. When I was in Fresno, I was invited to the DA’s Christmas party. I was not surprised when I saw several judges, all ex-prosecutors, in attendance.
The blanket papering of Judge Goethals points to a much bigger issue. How much longer are we going to tolerate law enforcement and D.A.’s offices breaking the law in their eagerness to obtain convictions? The fact that the papering has come to light is something to celebrate, as, in many cases, this type of behavior ends up being swept under the rug and never heard of again.
How many Judges are there who are in a position to face falling out of favor with the D.A.’s office they have to work with on a daily basis? The answer is probably discouraging, but we need more Judges like Goethals if there is any hope to be had for the future of our corrupt legal system.
If you are a victim of prosecutors who break the rules you can and should fight back. Give us a call at Tully-Weiss. We expose prosecutorial misconduct and we never back down when defending our clients’ rights.