Convicted Killer Wins New Trial in Sunset Beach Murder

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SANTA ANA (CNS) - A 61-year-old man serving a life without parole sentence for murder won a retrial when prosecutors announced today they would no longer contest allegations that his constitutional rights were violated.

An evidentiary hearing on what is known as a Massiah motion was scheduled to begin Thursday for Paul Gentile Smith, who was convicted in November 2010 of murdering 29-year-old Robert Haugen on Oct. 24, 1988, in Sunset Beach.

Smith's attorneys argued that their client's constitutional rights were violated when Orange County Jail inmates were directed by law enforcement agencies to solicit incriminating statements from the defendant after he was represented by counsel.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Seton Hunt told Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue that attorneys for several sheriff's deputies who would be called as witnesses in the evidentiary hearing would invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination if subpoenaed. Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer would not grant any of them immunity, Hunt said.

“It is clear to the Orange County district attorney that petitioner will not get a fair hearing'' because the witnesses intended to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights,'' Hunt said.

“As a result of that refusal to testify,'' Hunt said prosecutors asked Donahue to order a new trial.

On Monday, attorneys will work with Donahue on the legal language to make a new trial happen.

Hunt blamed sheriff's deputies for withholding evidence of efforts to use the jailhouse informant program to pump Smith for information helpful to prosecutors in the trial.

The alleged scheme to work Smith illegally for incriminating statements was uncovered in the evidentiary hearings revolving around similar attempts to ensnare Scott Dekraai in the confidential informant program, Smith's attorneys said.

The program was uncovered during the case against Dekraai, the worst mass killer in Orange County history.

The newly uncovered evidence allowed Smith's attorneys to file a habeas corpus motion, which was necessary because Smith's convictions were upheld by appellate justices.

“We're very happy about the result and we think it's a fair result for Mr. Smith and what the government put him through,'' Smith's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Sara Ross said after the hearing.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who also represents Smith and was Dekraai's attorney, said it was “unbelievable what was hidden from (defense attorneys) for a decade.''

Sanders doubted that prosecutors were not aware of evidence that deputies were directing three inmates to solicit incriminating statements from Smith.

“We think it was hidden by several members of the prosecutorial team for a decade,'' Sanders said. “Many, many people knew what was happening here, including (Smith's prosecutor) Ebrahim Baytieh.''

Sanders said, “In the end we'll take a new trial and be glad to get it. But ... a lot of people should be paying a dear price.''

Spitzer issued a statement acknowledging his office made a “difficult decision to concede a new trial.''

Spitzer said he has “pledged that my prosecutors would play by the rules'' and that he was “unwavering in that commitment.''

Spitzer blamed his predecessor Tony Rackuackas for failing to turn over information to defense attorneys regarding an informant in the case.

Spitzer said his office has “confidence in the facts that resulted in the defendant's 2010 murder conviction. Irrespective, we had no choice but to concede a new trial as a result of a failure by the prior district attorney administration to provide proper discovery to the defense in addition to the recent revelation that Orange County sheriff's deputies and investigators would refuse to testify.''

Smith pleaded guilty before his sentencing in 2010 to conspiring with his then-girlfriend to solicit an attack on the lead investigator in his murder case, but Sanders and Ross will work to get those charges thrown out.

Smith was convicted of first-degree murder with jurors also finding true a special circumstance allegation of torture.

Smith and Haugen had been friends for eight or nine years and Smith was a regular customer of Haugen, who was a marijuana dealer, Baytieh said during the defendant's trial.

Haugen was stabbed 18 times with the victim's nude body found on his bed with a pillow over his head and a large stereo speaker between his legs that was set afire.

Smith was linked to the killing after he was convicted in a domestic violence case in Las Vegas in 2007 and police obtained a DNA sample from the defendant.

Smith stabbed, tortured and attempted to set fire to Tina Smith, who is no relation to the defendant, in Las Vegas in 2007.

Investigators found blood spots in Haugen's apartment that they eventually matched to Smith.

Copyright 2021, City News Service, Inc.

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