The moment his victims have waited decades to experience — when a man admits to terrorizing California as the Golden State Killer — will take place Monday, as a 74-year-old former police officer shuffles into not a courtroom but a university ballroom.
When Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. steps onstage at Cal State Sacramento, cameras will project his face onto the ballroom wall so all can see, closing the Golden State Killer case with more spectacle than court decorum.
The plea hearing is scripted, allowing no room for ad-libbed confessions. DeAngelo is expected to admit guilt to 13 murders, 13 charges of kidnapping for purposes of robbery — the only crimes he is charged with — as well as some 62 other crimes of rape and abduction for which the statutes of limitations long ago expired.
The crime series ran from at least 1973 to 1986 and involved attacks on some 106 children, men and women. Fifty women were raped. Thirteen people were killed.
Detectives did not have a final named suspect until 2018, when they used crime-scene DNA and genealogy services to identify the killer’s cousin and then, finally, DeAngelo.
All the women who were raped are to be referred to as “Jane Doe,” a decision that was criticized before the hearing by some who seek to be shed of decades of social stigma over their attacks.
“I don’t want that,” said Kris Pedretti, who was 15 when she became the 10th victim of a serial predator operating in the suburbs of Sacramento and known then as the East Area Rapist. “I want to be seen as a real person that he did this to and not as some Jane Doe.”
The Sacramento County district attorney’s office told Pedretti the decision had been made for her, she said, but conceded her request to be allowed to stand during the hearing when her 1976 attack is mentioned.
To an early love interest, Joe DeAngelo was energetic and worldly. Now, nearly 50 years later, he stands accused of an extended spasm of violence — home invasions, rapes, murders — in the 1970s and ’80s.
Prosecutors have agreed not to seek the death penalty — the main request made by DeAngelo’s public defenders. In return for his guilty plea, DeAngelo will likely be sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.
The public will also be spared years of criminal proceedings, which prosecutors estimated could have cost more than $20 million. There will be no need for testimony by scores of rape victims, family members of those murdered and DeAngelo’s three daughters and ex-wife.
District attorneys from the eight counties prosecuting DeAngelo are also to take the stage Monday and read into the record their unchallenged view of events.
Because of COVID-19 spacing requirements, the proceeding was moved to the ballroom at Cal State Sacramento, the school from which DeAngelo received a criminal justice degree in 1972. The audience will be composed almost entirely of victims and their families, with spaces awarded by lottery for 27 members of the media.
Unlike the mock court proceedings held in Sacramento school gymnasiums, the ballroom will not be laid out to resemble a courtroom.
The judge, defendant and lawyers are to be onstage, facing an audience of nearly 200 and banks of television cameras. Large projection screens will amplify the faces of those at the podium, much like at a political rally. The hearing will be live-streamed by Sacramento County Superior Court, a national true-crime entertainment network and multiple news programs.
“All that’s missing are the lions,” said one anonymous court official.
Judicial experts said there is little the courts can do to stop such hoopla from forcing a balancing act between 1st Amendment rights to public access and 6th Amendment rights to a fair trial.
“It’s the reality of today’s world,” said U.S. District Senior Judge Reggie B. Walton, who presided over the 2007 perjury trial of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, covered by news outlets across the world, and who most recently ruled on U.S. Department of Justice censorship of the highly politicized Mueller report.
“That’s just something that courts have to adapt to and put in place — processes that make the proceedings accessible to all of those who are concerned but at the same time, not letting that accessibility impact on the obligation to be fair to both sides,” Walton said.
“It’s a challenge, but I don’t think it’s impossible.”
Trials such as this fed a public appetite for drama long before there was reality television programming.
“We watched O.J., both the Bronco chase and the trial, like it was on HBO,” said Benjamin Holden, a lawyer-turned-reporter who covered the 1995 Los Angeles double murder trial of former football star O.J. Simpson and now teaches media law at the Illinois College of Media. “Not only are we to be burdened with this affliction of entertainment rearing its ugly head in the courtroom, we probably always have.”
From beginning to end, the crimes involving DeAngelo played out in the public eye.
The East Area Rapist drew so much media attention that he caused a public panic, prompting citizen patrols, bounties and a run on sales of guns, door locks and guard dogs. Midway through the series of rapes, detectives believe, the attacker began to feed off that public hysteria, and he began to instruct victims to pass on death threats to the police and future victims.
DeAngelo was fired from his Auburn, Calif., police job in 1979 after he was caught shoplifting. The murders that ensued as he and his wife moved to Southern California — again involving bedroom attacks and rapes — at first went unconnected. The unknown assailant was given new local nicknames: the Diamond-Knot Killer and the Night Stalker, later changed to Original Night Stalker after another serial killer took that sobriquet.
Advances in forensic DNA changed the case dramatically. In 2001, detectives were able to link the attacks up and down the state.
The crime spree became media fodder again as a television series, then was picked up by a Los Angeles writer, Michelle McNamara, who re-branded the perpetrator as the Golden State Killer and marketed a book on her attempts to chronicle, and perhaps solve, the crimes.
A 2016 decision by unnamed investigators at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to break the chain of custody and allow McNamara to take home 37 boxes of case files and two bins of evidence has now become fodder for legal challenges against the law enforcement agency. The defense lawyer for a man serving life in prison for another DNA-solved rape and murder cited the evidence breach to support his own allegations of laxity and misconduct within the county crime lab.
The defense lawyer said McNamara’s research assistant told him the case files were returned to Orange County after McNamara’s sudden death in April 2016, before the release of her book, which has been turned into an HBO series. The first episode aired Sunday, and the series is to conclude just before DeAngelo’s sentencing in August.
Victims have been told to prepare impact statements to be read aloud during proceedings expected to last a week before DeAngelo’s sentence is declared.