There are just four district attorneys in California that have opposed every criminal justice reform effort – Mike Ramos of San Bernardino, Tony Rackauckas of Orange County, Anne Marie Schubert of Sacramento and, oh yeah, Jeff Reisig. Normally, sitting DAs do not face challenges, even more infrequently do they lose.
But things are not normal. All four of them received real and vigorous challenges. This week, Tony Rackauckas appears to have become the second of these DAs to lose. Jeff Reisig held on by the skin of his teeth, and only Anne Marie Schubert emerged more or less unscathed.
According to the Orange County Register as of late Friday, Supervisor Todd Spitzer led 53.1 to 46.9 and his lead was growing as they counted late ballots. While Mr. Rackauckas has not formally conceded, he did send an internal memo to his staff indicating he was expecting to lose.
The race and results in Orange County offer both perspective and hope here in Yolo County. In June, Dean Johansson, a deputy public defender, came from nowhere to come within 2000 votes of knocking off the three-term sitting district attorney.
Recently DA Jeff Reisig angered many when he attempted to prosecute activist and Johansson supporter Maria Grijalva on misdemeanor campaign finance charges – charges that were dropped prior to arraignment for a lot of reasons, the most important being changes in campaign finance law as the result of Citizens United.
But that action has triggered backlash as activists have begun a letter-writing campaign to trying to convince Attorney General Xavier Becerra to investigate the Yolo County District Attorney. Here too, Orange County is a guide.
Tony Rackauckas has overseen one of the worst corruption scandals in recent history. The jailhouse informant scandal has been ongoing for some time. In fact, in 2014, the Vanguard had Scott Sanders, the deputy public defender representing mass murderer Scott Dekraai, whose work uncovered a network of jailhouse informants illegally deployed by the Orange County Sheriff and Orange County DA, and hidden from the defense.
In the four years that followed Mr. Sanders’ appearance in Yolo County, a judge removed the OCDA’s office from the penalty phase of that trial, the court ultimately took the death penalty off the table altogether and sentenced Mr. Dekraai, who killed eight people in Seal Beach in 2011, to life without parole.
Despite all of this, the AG’s office has investigated this matter for a number of years. The statute of limitations for some of the testimony for sheriff’s deputies who lied under oath about their work with informants passed earlier this year.
“The Attorney General has had more than three years to file charges, and despite indisputable perjury, concealment and obstruction of justice, no action has been taken,” said Scott Sanders in May. “If these were ordinary members of the community some of these charges would have been filed within weeks.”
“If we’re engaged in any particular investigation, you can guarantee it’s a priority…otherwise we wouldn’t be engaged in it,” said Mr. Becerra, in a press conference in Orange County last May. “What we do based on that action will become more clear if we find there’s enough evidence to move forward.”
That was six months ago. Still nothing. Message to Yolo County: you’ll have to do this yourself
That is what voters did in Orange County. Mr. Rackauckas, during the election, acknowledged that “mistakes were made in the way that snitches were handled, but he has downplayed the matter and in some cases sought to blame the Sheriff’s Department,” the Orange County Register wrote as they endorsed his opponent.
Earlier in the year, Mr. Rackauckas attempted to blame the judges who ruled against his office, accusing them of bias and claiming that “the judge who had removed the DA’s office from the Dekraai case did so because Rackauckas didn’t hire the judge’s son and that appellate justices who later found that misconduct in the DA’s office was systemic did so because they were friends with the judge in the Dekraai case.”
The Orange County Register ultimately endorsed Todd Spitzer, despite his own problems.
“There is no easy choice here,” they write. “We’re recommending Todd Spitzer for District Attorney because he promises to bring transparency, accountability and reform to the District Attorney’s Office. Amid the fallout from the snitch scandal, those things are desperately needed, and they’re clearly not going to happen under Rackauckas, who still maintains there’s no real problem, despite court rulings, open investigations and unflinching criticisms of his leadership.”
This is not a small deal. The snitch scandal has so far not only resulted in the life sentence for Mr. Dekraai, but it has resulted in reduced or thrown-out charges in numerous other criminal cases, and the retrial of several convicted killers – some of whom have gone free because their cases are too tainted to proceed.
There are lessons here for Yolo County. First, with as bad as the jailhouse informant scandal is, the Democratic attorney general has still not done anything. That doesn’t mean he won’t, as the investigation is still ongoing, and perhaps now that the election of Mr. Rackauckas is over as well as the AG’s own election, he will focus on this matter.
But if the AG has slow-played this investigation, there is no way Yolo County residents should count on the AG to intervene in Yolo County matters.
Second, as we have seen, the voters are the ultimate arbiters. The scandal in Orange County aside, Mr. Rackauckas rivaled Mike Ramos, Jeff Reisig and Anne Marie Schubert in his reluctance to support reform efforts or prosecute officer involved shootings.
Reformers were able to oust two of them. Mr. Reisig barely survived, and Anne Marie Schubert may have been in more trouble had she not broken the East Bay Rapist case.
We will now see what happens – but DAs are now on alert that they will be held accountable, even if it is not the authorities willing to do it.
—David M. Greenwald reporting