POLITICS

Legal Experts Urge DOJ To Investigate Orange County Jailhouse Snitch 'Crisis'

Prosecutors and cops in the county have violated the Constitution, they say.

LOS ANGELES ― More than three dozen former prosecutors and legal experts are calling on the Department of Justice to conduct a full investigation of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department over a jailhouse informant program that allegedly has violated defendants’ rights.

“We the undersigned share a firm belief in our criminal justice system and its overall ability to produce fair and reliable results,” the letter addressed to Attorney General Loretta Lynch begins. “Compelling evidence of pervasive police and prosecutorial misconduct in Orange County, however, has caused us grave concern.” 

Prosecutors have been using evidence from a jailhouse informant program that violated inmates’ rights to obstruct justice for what may be decades, the signees said. The fallout continues to unravel some murder cases, they wrote: All 250 prosecutors with in the OCDA office were booted from a mass murder case earlier this year; a court found that at least one prosecutor had given less than credible testimony under oath; more recently, multiple sheriff’s deputies refused to testify in various criminal cases.

“It is fair to say that the criminal justice system in Orange County is in a state of crisis,” the letter reads.

Multiple national and state civil rights groups signed onto the letter, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Constitution Project, as did several highly regarded members of the legal community, such as the current dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, former Los Angeles DAs and a former prosecutor of international crimes at the Hague.  

The seriousness of the alleged violations was illustrated in March, when Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals ejected the entire OCDA office from a high-profile mass murder case.

Goethals said at the time that the government had committed “significant” violations of due process and called certain aspects of the office’s behavior a “comedy of errors.”

The defendant in that case, Scott Dekraai, pleaded guilty last year to shooting and killing his ex-wife and seven other people in a hair salon in 2011, in what remains the largest mass murder in Orange County history. Dekraai’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, unearthed violations within the county’s secret jailhouse informant program, as well as internal records from the program that may have been improperly concealed for over 30 years.

It’s common for law enforcement authorities to enlist informants to help bolster a case ― the tactic is perfectly legal, even when the informant receives something in exchange. But Sanders argues that in some Orange County cases, the jailhouse informants, at the direction of sheriff’s deputies, held recorded and unrecorded conversations with inmates who were already represented by lawyers, which is a violation of an inmate’s right to counsel. Prosecutors allegedly presented damning evidence gathered by the informants in court, but withheld evidence that could have been beneficial to the defense, a violation of a defendant’s right to due process. 

“More troubling still, this all appears to be the tip of the iceberg,” the experts write in their letter.

“Given this state of affairs, as well as the scope of the misconduct at issue, the Department of Justice is the only entity with the capacity to conduct the investigation required,” the letter goes on to state. 

A brief Sanders filed in October in a separate double-murder case in the county produced a pile of documents indicating that state prosecutors told Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas that his office may have had a jailhouse snitch problem since 1999.

The OCSD has acknowledged “deficiencies” in the policies and protocols involving jailhouse informants. Lt. Jeff Hallock, spokesman for the sheriff’s department, told The Huffington Post earlier this year that the department has already taken steps to create more robust ways of documenting inmate handling.

“We are fully cooperating with the current and ongoing California Attorney General’s investigation into the issue and believe it would be prudent to wait until their findings are published; however, we would cooperate with any additional investigation or inquiry as a means of resolving the issue,” OC Sheriff Sandra Hutchens told HuffPost Wednesday in an emailed statement.

And despite calls for a sweeping federal investigation ― including a September New York Times editorial on the subject ― Rackauckas and California Attorney General Kamala Harris remain defensive. 

Rackauckas’ office has assembled its own commission to investigate claims of prosecutor misconduct, but the DA has maintained that no one in his office intentionally behaved inappropriately.

“Our position has always been that we would welcome any scrutiny from any law enforcement agency that wants to come and review all of the matters regarding this issue,” Susan Schroeder, OCDA chief of staff, told HuffPost.

Harris is seeking a reversal of Goethals’ decision to boot the DA office from the Dekraai case, and her office has also launched an investigation into the allegations. 

Kristen Ford, press secretary for Harris’ office, said that investigation is “ongoing,” but declined to comment further on the letter.

The investigation by Harris’ office is criminal in nature and looks specifically at the allegations of misconduct in the Dekraai case. A federal investigation by DOJ ― which could happen at the same time as one run by the state ― could be broader in scope and could include a civil rights investigation.

 

This article has been updated with statements from the OCDA, the sheriff’s office and Harris’ office.

Read the full letter below: 

 

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