Orange County Judge Faces Inquiry in Accidental Freeway Killing of LA Deputy

By City News Service
City News Service
City News Service
January 13, 2022 Updated: January 13, 2022

SANTA ANA, Calif.—An Orange County Superior Court judge faces an inquiry from a judicial watchdog agency stemming from his handling of a murder case when he was a prosecutor, officials announced Jan. 13.

Mike Murray faces an inquiry before the Commission on Judicial Performance regarding the prosecution of Cole Wilkins, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the fatal collision of off-duty Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy David Piquette.

That conviction was overturned by the state Supreme Court. Wilkins was later convicted of second-degree murder, but that conviction was reduced on appeal to involuntary manslaughter.

Wilkins has a civil suit pending in federal court. Murray and Orange County Superior Court Judge Larry Yellin, who was also previously a prosecutor who handled the case, were dismissed as defendants in that lawsuit based on arguments of immunity they have under state law.

Wilkins stole several appliances from an under-construction Menifee home on July 7, 2006, and put them in a Ford F250 truck’s cab, but he left the tailgate down and did not secure them properly. About 5 a.m. that day he was driving away with the stolen loot when a stove fell onto the Riverside (91) Freeway, triggering the crash that killed Piquette.

Within minutes of the stove dropping onto the freeway, there were a few collisions and several calls to 911 before the fatal crash.

Piquette managed to swerve out of the way, but he collided with a big-rig truck that jackknifed and fell onto Piquette’s car, which crushed the victim to death.

At issue in the case was a dispute among California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers who wrangled over the cause of the crash and a claim from defense attorneys that they were never given evidence of this dispute to use in the defense of their client. Murray and Yellin testified in an evidentiary hearing in the case in 2017.

One of the CHP investigators in the case told a defense attorney that he originally found Piquette was at fault for the collision because he was driving at an unsafe speed, according to the commission’s report laying out the allegations against Murray. That investigator, Michael Bernardin, said he was directed to change his report to the cause of the crash and another officer rewrote the report with a recommendation that Wilkins be charged by prosecutors. The original report was destroyed.

Murray is accused of failing to inquire about potentially exculpatory evidence and passing it on to defense attorneys.

Murray’s attorney, Edith Matthai, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Murray has until Jan. 24 to respond to the allegations.

The commission will hold a hearing later and they will decide whether to remove Murray from his post, censure him or admonish him.

When Wilkins appealed his second-degree murder conviction, the 4th District Court of Appeal rejected his argument for outrageous governmental misconduct, but the justices agreed there was not enough evidence to prove Wilkins was guilty of second-degree murder.

Wilkins’ attorney, Sara Ross, argued previously that jurors should have been allowed to consider involuntary manslaughter.

A defendant who is accused of a killing in connection with the carrying out of a related felony can be found guilty of first-degree murder. That was the prosecution’s legal theory in the Wilkins case. One of the major issues, however, was whether Wilkins’ burglary was suspended under the “safe harbor” legal theory because he made one stop before continuing driving away with the stolen goods.

If so, it would prevent prosecutors from connecting the burglary to the killing and ruling out first-degree murder, leaving the defendant open to prosecution under a legal theory of “implied malice,” which is second-degree murder.