By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California's attorney general said on Wednesday his office would press ahead in seeking the death penalty for a man who pleaded guilty to killing eight people in a 2011 shooting rampage, even though local prosecutors were sanctioned for acting improperly.
The state's top elected law enforcement official assumed responsibility for the penalty phase of the case against Scott Dekraai after a California appeals court upheld a lower-court order recusing the Orange County District Attorney's Office over prosecutorial misconduct.
Defense lawyers sought to remove local prosecutors and bar them from seeking the death penalty on grounds that jailhouse informants were improperly used to wring a confession from Dekraai.
In agreeing to take the case away from the D.A.'s office and assign it to the attorney general, the judge declined to eliminate the death penalty as a possible punishment.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra said on Wednesday his office would, indeed, seek capital punishment for Dekraai, a ex-tugboat worker who pleaded guilty in May 2014 to eight counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder weeks before he was due to go on trial.
Dekraai, then 42, was locked in a custody battle with his ex-wife when he walked into an Orange County hair salon in October 2011 armed with three guns, and opened fire on customers and employees, shooting his victims at close range.
His former spouse, Michelle Fournier, was killed along with the salon owner and five others.
After leaving the salon, Dekraai fatally shot 64-year-old David Caouette, who was sitting in his sport utility vehicle parked outside, prosecutors said.
Dekraai was arrested blocks from the bloody scene in the heart of Seal Beach, a town about 20 miles (32 km) southeast of Los Angeles known by its residents as "Mayberry-by-the-Sea" for its bucolic, small-town ambiance.
"This tragic event has caused so much harm to far too many families," Becerra said in a statement. "I have concluded that the appropriate course of action is to seek the death penalty in this case."
California, where voters in November narrowly approved a measure aimed at hastening the court process for capital punishment cases, is home to the nation's largest death row, with about 750 condemned inmates, but the state has not executed anyone since 2006.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Cooney)