Scandal and Failure to Hold Official Accountable Highlight the Failed Prosecutorial Oversight System
It has been nearly five years since Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders spoke in Davis about the jailhouse scandal – back then it was a blip on the radar. Ultimately the scandal would get national coverage, the elected DA Tony Rackauckas would lose his reelection bid last November, and Judge Thomas Goethals, himself a former prosecutor, would throw out the death penalty in the case of Scott Dekraai – the worst mass murderer in Orange County history.
But when it came time to hold prosecutors accountable for what was called egregious misconduct by the judge and the state courts, the California Attorney General’s office fumbled the ball across the field.
This week, the LA Times report, state prosecutors have closed the investigation into “the unconstitutional use of informants in Orange County’s jails, ending a key probe into a scandal that rocked the law enforcement community.
“Deputy Atty. Gen. Darren Shaffer said the four-year investigation was at an end, with no prosecutions or punishments against deputies,” the Times reports.
The fallout of this scandal has been tremendous, with Judge Goethals removing the DA’s office from the Dekraai trial and ultimately sentencing Mr. Dekraii to life in prison – and revelations have led to retrials for dozens of cases potentially tainted by the scandal, and even the dropping of some cases.
We have long criticized the AG’s office here, first under Kamala Harris and then under Xavier Becerra, for their continuing to seek the death penalty in this case and backing the DA’s office in the wake of what the judge declared to be “outrageous governmental misconduct.”
In 2017 Judge Goethals issued the ruling in clear, unequivocal terms.
“In this court’s view, these truths matter,” he said. “To ensure the ongoing integrity of the justice system, courts must demand that everyone follow the same set of rules.”
The judge stated plainly: “This court believes that maintaining the integrity and viability of Orange County’s criminal justice system remains of paramount importance.”
We have long been critical of the AG’s failure to properly oversee either the sheriff’s department or the DA’s office.
Over the last five years, a series of evidentiary hearings revealed a coordinated effort to get inmates to snitch on other inmates.
Like many other scandals, the DA’s office and the sheriff then compounded their problems – instead of working to comply with the court’s lawful orders or working to correct “the systemic problems,” the members of the prosecution team according to the judge “chose to either deny, or ignore, these glaring illegalities.”
The sheriff and DA not only ignored orders, but continually downplayed the severity of the conduct.
Judge Goethals writes, “Sheriffs’ sworn personnel gave false and/or intentionally misleading testimony regarding the existence of relevant jail records. The evidence proves the existence at relevant times of voluminous discoverable data bases created and maintained by OCSD sworn personnel.”
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens testified and “acknowledged at least some of her Department’s discovery failures in this case and apologized to the court for them.”
In his conclusion, the judge writes, “During her testimony the Sheriff herself offered no explanation as to how this situation could exist so many years after this court issued its first discovery order.”
The truth, the judge writes, is that “over a course of years, rather than over a course of days or weeks or even months, Sheriff’s deputies operating inside the Orange County jail system intentionally moved working confidential informants … to elicit incriminating statements from targeted defendants.”
This “well established program” he said “is not a myth.” As the 4th DCA concluded upon appeal and in upholding the lower court’s decision, “(t)he magnitude of the systemic problems cannot be overlooked.”
The judge concluded that “the truth is more than one member of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has either lied or willfully withheld evidence from this court during testimony given concerning the various defense motions.”
And the other truth is that the Orange County DA’s Office “has been complicit in the Orange County Sheriff’s misconduct. In point of fact, there was no legitimate reason for OCSD to create and maintain such a sophisticated, synchronized, and well-documented CI program other than to obtain statements that will benefit prosecutions.”
Scott Sanders, who spoke in 2014 at the Vanguard’s annual fundraiser on prosecutorial misconduct, told the Times: “This investigation was a sham from beginning to end, and the result is deputies are more emboldened than ever to ignore the law.”
The AG’s office has already drawn criticism for failing to crack down on officer involved shootings, but two successive AG offices’ failures to crack down on this Orange County case are another reminder that the system of oversight over corrupt prosecutors is broken and is in desperate need of repair.
That reform is clearly not going to come from current AG Xavier Becerra.
—David M. Greenwald reporting