Lawyers in the Golden State Killer/East Area Rapist case believe they have reached a deal under which suspect Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. will plead guilty to 88 murder, rape and other charges at a June 29 hearing and avoid a death penalty trial with a life sentence imposed instead, four sources have told The Sacramento Bee.
Details of the agreement, which has not been formalized in court documents filed in the case, still are being worked out, as is the final decision on where the hearing will take place.
Hearings in the case to date have been held in a cramped courtroom on the first floor of the Sacramento County Main Jail that can accommodate only several dozen people.
But with hundreds of spectators expected — including numerous victims, their relatives and media from around the world — officials are looking for a setting large enough to allow for social distancing because of COVID-19 concerns.
The venue is not expected to be in any of the Sacramento Superior Court courtrooms because none are large enough for such a hearing.
Instead, officials are focusing on large public buildings in Sacramento that may be used.
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, whose office is leading the prosecution effort, declined to comment Monday. But prosecutors from counties that have filed charges in the case issued a joint statement saying their DNA investigative efforts identified “DeAngelo as the suspect in a series of rapes, burglaries and murders that spanned 11 counties over more than a decade.”
“Victims of a crime are entitled to finality in their criminal cases, as well as the expectation that the person convicted of committing the crime will be punished by the courts of the State of California,” the statement added. “Victims and their loved ones have a right to be heard, and all six District Attorney’s Offices involved in the prosecution of People v. DeAngelo are working closely with the victims in this case to ensure their statements are considered by the court prior to sentencing.
“We have a moral and ethical responsibility to consider any offer from the defense, given the massive scope of the case, the advanced age of many of the victims and witnesses, and our inherent obligations to the victims.”
DeAngelo’s attorney, Sacramento County Supervising Assistant Public Defender Joseph Cress said the plea agreement would afford some finality for victims while avoiding a lengthy and expensive trial.
“We feel this is a just resolution of this case and that the resolution provides some finality and closure for the victims,” Cress told The Sacramento Bee just after noon Monday. “This also avoids the stress and financial costs of a lengthy trial.”
The agreement, which sources said could be thrown off by DeAngelo’s unpredictable nature, is the result of months of negotiations as Sacramento public defenders have sought a way to persuade prosecutors in Sacramento, Contra Costa, Orange, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura counties to agree to a deal that scraps plans for a preliminary hearing that was set to begin in August.
Prosecutors had been pressing to get the hearing, which would have included 150 witnesses testifying over eight to 10 weeks, under way as soon as possible because many victims and witnesses are in their 80s or older.
The public defenders have made plain from nearly the start of the case that they wanted to find a way to resolve it without a death penalty trial, and the fact that DeAngelo is 74 and California’s death penalty is under a moratorium imposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom made it easier for prosecutors to agree not to press the issue.
DeAngelo currently faces 26 counts in Sacramento Superior Court, including 13 murder counts: two in Sacramento, one in Tulare County, four in Orange County, four in Santa Barbara County and two in Ventura County.
He also faces 13 kidnap for robbery charges stemming from a series of rapes — nine in Sacramento County attributed to the “East Area Rapist” and four in Contra Costa County.
But the agreement being hammered out envisions DeAngelo also admitting guilt in another 62 crimes attributed over the years to assailants variously known in California as the Visalia Ransacker, Original Nightstalker and Diamond Knot Killer.
Jennifer Carole, whose father and stepmother, Lyman and Charlene Smith, were bludgeoned to death in their Ventura home in March 1980, said family members and victims were told of the plea agreement on June 1 and asked not to discuss it publicly.
“I’m extremely disappointed we’re not going to a preliminary hearing,” said Carole, who moved to Sacramento from Santa Cruz to attend hearings in the case. “I absolutely think we should have had an opportunity to sit in a courtroom with him and make him listen to the evidence.
“I know he wouldn’t have reacted, but it’s part of the process that I was really counting on.”
Carole, who has created a podcast about the case, said she understands the motive of prosecutors who did not want to subject elderly witnesses to having to travel during a pandemic to testify, and said she realizes the state’s taxpayers will be spared enormous legal costs from a trial.
But she said she can’t view the outcome as justice.
“I sit with this and I feel like, no justice, no peace,” she said. “At a time when Black Lives Matter has been happening we’re talking about a dirty cop, a man who used his skills, his acquired police skills, to commit those heinous crimes. And so as I’ve listened to the culture rage I have felt it and I’ve had to be quiet.
“But I feel the same as ‘no justice, no peace.’ I don’t feel like this is justice, but I don’t know there’s anything that could make me feel justice.”
Ronald Harrington, whose younger brother, Keith, and sister-in-law, Patty, were killed in their Dana Point home in 1980, said his family supports the decision by Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer and the other prosecutors to settle for a sentence of life without parole.
“I guess there’s some degree of closure,” he said. “It has been almost 40 years now since the death of my youngest brother and his wife, Patty.
“This has gone on for such a long time.”
Harrington said he and his brother, Bruce, both support the death penalty but realized the difficulty that prosecutors faced with a moratorium set by Newsom.
“The Golden State Killer should always be considered the poster child for the death penalty in California, even though we’re in total agreement with life without parole in this case,” Harrington said.
He spearheaded the 2004 passage of Proposition 69, which required felons to provide DNA samples for the state’s database and since has been used to solve countless cold cases, but not the Golden State Killer case directly.
Harrington said the family is hopeful that DNA websites will continue to be accessible to law enforcement operating under appropriate protocols.
“That’s the most important tool moving forward to be able to solve these cases,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a privacy issue that has to be acknowledged and addressed on using public access DNA sites.”
DeAngelo, a former Auburn police officer, was arrested in April 2018 after a decades-long search for a suspect in the crimes that struck California counties from 1974 through mid-1986.
Schubert, the Sacramento district attorney, had made finding a suspect a priority and spearheaded the use of DNA evidence from old crime scenes to create a new investigative technique that plugged that evidence into genealogical websites looking for a match.
Eventually, investigators found a potential relative on a website called GEDmatch.com and began building out a family tree of that individual that led them to Citrus Heights, where DeAngelo had been living for years after being fired from the Auburn Police Department and becoming a truck mechanic.
The case has drawn worldwide attention, spawned a best selling book and is the subject of a six-part documentary series on HBO scheduled to debut June 28, the day before DeAngelo’s next scheduled hearing.