By Dana Feldman and Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California judge on Thursday removed local prosecutors from the case against an ex-tugboat worker who killed eight people in a 2011 shooting rampage at an Orange County hair salon, citing discovery violations and accusations of misconduct.
But Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals declined to eliminate the death penalty as a possible punishment for Scott Dekraai, 45, who pleaded guilty last year to first degree murder in the massacre at Salon Meritage in Seal Beach.
In recusing the Orange County District Attorney's office, Goethals ruled that the state attorney general's office should take over the case, but the judge stayed his ruling until March 20 to give that office time to appeal that decision.
"As the chief law enforcement officer in this county the District Attorney is responsible for the actions of his agents. In this case the evidence demonstrates that some of those agents have habitually ignored the law over an extended period of time to the detriment of this defendant," Goethals wrote in the eight-page decision that followed a hearing in the case.
Orange County District Attorney's spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder said prosecutors would meet with California's attorney general to consider an appeal.
"This was a horrible, tragic day for the victims and our hearts go out to them. We respectfully disagree with the court's ruling," she said.
Defense lawyers sought to remove Orange County prosecutors and bar them from seeking the death penalty against Dekraai because, they say, jail house informants were improperly used to wring a confession from Dekraai.
They also said Orange County Sheriff's deputies lied during a hearing into those allegations. In his ruling Goethals found that two deputies lied or withheld evidence during their testimony.
"In this case the District Attorney's conflict of interest is not imaginary," Goethals wrote. "It apparently stems from his loyalty to his law enforcement partners at the expense of his other constitutional and statutory obligations."
Dekraai had been locked in a bitter child custody battle with ex-wife, Michelle Fournier when he opened fire in the salon. Fournier was killed along with salon owner Randy Fannin and six others.
Dekraai was arrested blocks from the bloody scene in the heart of Seal Beach, a town 20 miles (32 km) southeast of Los Angeles known by its residents as "Mayberry-by-the-Sea" for its bucolic, small-town atmosphere.
The salon shooting ranks as the worst mass killing in Orange County history.
(Editing by Alan Crosby and Eric Walsh)