The latest twist in the ongoing “snitch” scandal involving Orange County’s district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department further reinforces critics’ fears about problems in the nation’s criminal justice system.
If allegations are right, then prosecutors often try to “win at all costs,” even if it means playing fast and loose with rules. Prosecutors and cops rarely admit errors or mete out punishment against their own. And, most significantly, based on the latest news, they are slow to reform bad practices even after they are exposed by judges and reporters.
The latest: On Aug. 4, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders sent a 10-page letter to two of the county’s top prosecutors. It is a call for additional discovery in the case of People v. Scott Dekraai. Dekraai pleaded guilty to the 2011 murder of eight people, including his ex-wife, at a beauty salon in Seal Beach. The question now is whether he gets the death penalty.
But this case sparked a scandal about the way Orange County law enforcement used information from jailhouse snitches to gather evidence against defendants. It’s a fascinating, complex, and at times, disturbing tale – but constitutes must reading as law enforcement behavior comes under increasing national scrutiny.
A New York Times editorial from 2015 captures the gist of the scandal: “Among other things, the defense argued, deputies intentionally placed informants in cells next to defendants facing trial … and hid that fact.” Using snitches “is prohibited once someone has been charged with a crime. Even when using an informant is allowed, defendants and judges must be told of the arrangement. That did not happen in Orange County,” according to the Times. It came to a reasonable conclusion: “[T]he Justice Department should conduct a thorough investigation.”
Sanders’ new letter is significant because he alleges the county’s top law enforcement officials are still withholding information from defense attorneys. Local law enforcement denies it and claims reforms are being implemented, but the allegation should renew interest in additional oversight.
Regarding the overall scandal, the district attorney’s office insists that no one withheld information on purpose and that it didn’t prejudice a client who already pleaded guilty. The office called the latest letter a “publicity ploy” because it said the department actually approached Sanders to tell him about the additional information he then references in the letter.
That Times quotation from above was in a letter sent to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch last November by UC Irvine law-school dean Erwin Chemerinsky and former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp. It was co-signed by 29 former prosecutors and law professors. They, too, called for a federal investigation.
In turn, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas issued a statement that criticized Chemerinsky. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens defended her department. Combine this lackadaisical response with the public defender’s latest concerns, and it’s reasonable to at least wonder how much of substance has changed within the D.A. and sheriff’s departments regarding the handling of informants and the production of evidence in criminal cases.
“The revelations during the past several months further corroborate a remarkable disdain for the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, the statutory and constitutional guidelines requiring the disclosure of favorable evidence, the laws limiting access to confidential information and the laws that require all witnesses to tell the truth and not obstruct justice,” Sanders wrote in his missive.
Last year, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals recused the entire district attorney’s office from prosecuting the Dekraaicase. Because of the scandal, at least six cases have unraveled. So it’s hard to take anything related to this case lightly.
The D.A.’s office is buoyed by the fact that the California attorney general’s office appealed the recusal order and is still handling the case as the appeal proceeds. But Chemerinsky told the ABA Journal in May: “I’m worried that the California attorney general has such a close relationship with the D.A.’s office that [the investigation] might not happen.”
Even Rackauckas’ own oversight committee declared “his office a ‘rudderless’ ship and calling for a deeper investigation into the use of jailhouse informants,” reported the Register’s Tony Saavedra in January. If Sanders is right, then after seven months, problems remain. Even the D.A.’s office has told the feds it welcomes an investigation. What is the U.S. Justice Department waiting for?