Lawyer: Man will plead guilty to killings at salon

Published April 29, 2014 7:00AM (EDT)

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A former tugboat captain's decision to plead guilty to killing his ex-wife and seven others hasn't won him any offer of leniency from prosecutors, who still want to see Scott Dekraai put to death for a shooting that terrorized a sleepy Southern California beach community three years ago.

But Dekraai's decision, announced Monday by his attorney, could win him sympathy from the people he really needs — the jurors who will decide whether he should be executed or sentenced to life in prison.

Before defense lawyer Scott Sanders told an Orange County court Monday that his client is willing to plead guilty, Dekraai had offered to admit to the crimes in exchange for multiple life sentences. Prosecutors wouldn't budge from their decision to seek his execution.

Dekraai, who was scheduled to go to trial June 9, is now scheduled to enter his plea on Friday.

By agreeing to plead guilty, former federal prosecutor Lawrence Rosenthal says Dekraai is taking a calculated risk that jurors may go easy on him for owning up to his crimes.

"This is the kind of tactical judgment that defense lawyers make all the time," said Rosenthal, a law professor at Chapman University.

Often, he said, attorneys worry that jurors will lose faith in the defense team after they've issued a guilty verdict. They also worry that jurors may become irritated after sitting through a trial, returning a guilty verdict and then learning they have to sit through the trial's penalty phase and render another verdict.

Sanders said Dekraai decided to plead guilty to give the victims' families certainty that he will never be released from prison and to spare them a lengthy case.

"He felt he needs to give the victims at least the sense he's not seeking to have this go on forever," Sanders told reporters.

Dekraai, 44, had been locked in a custody dispute with his ex-wife over their-8-year-old son before he strapped on a bulletproof vest, took three guns and stormed into Salon Meritage in 2011, police said.

He is accused of shooting his ex-wife, a hairdresser, before killing the Seal Beach salon's owner and six others.

Eight people were shot inside the salon, and all but one died. A man sitting in his car in the parking lot was also gunned down.

Police stopped Dekraai just minutes after the shooting and they said he told them, "I know what I did."

His attorney still wants to have the death penalty tossed and for the district attorney's office to recuse itself from the case because of recordings made by a fellow inmate that prosecutors characterized as Dekraai bragging about the killings.

Prosecutors agreed last week to drop efforts to use the recordings in court, but are continuing to press for the death penalty.

"Nothing has changed," prosecutor Scott Simmons told reporters outside court. "We've said from the get go this is a death penalty case, and we're continuing on with the penalty phase after his plea of guilty."

The salon reopened about a year after the shootings that rocked usually peaceful Seal Beach. Six of the original employees, including the owner's widow, returned to work.

For more than two years, relatives of the victims have trekked to the Orange County courthouse in Santa Ana for hearings.

Paul Caoette of Costa Mesa, whose father David was gunned down as he sat in his car outside the salon, welcomed the idea of a plea.

"I think he should admit his guilt," Caouette said. "Every single thing he has done is cowardly.

"We're a capital punishment state. If anybody deserves the death penalty, it's Dekraai."


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