The government’s foremost responsibility is to administer a system of justice. Without a just system — due process for the accused, trustworthy trials, fair-minded judges, police and prosecutors — our society is at risk of unraveling. We need only consult the history books, or news stories from other lands, to see what happens when rule of law breaks down. Even if society survives such corruption, individuals suffer grave injustices.
Yet in my years of writing about the criminal-justice system, I’ve found the public generally shrugs at these types of scandals. I blame two factors. First, the allegations typically are so complicated it’s hard to fully understand what’s going on and the details often are shrouded in official secrecy. Second, law-abiding folks are so happy to see the “bad guys” get their just desserts that they aren’t too worried if the “good guys” don’t play by the rules.
The result of such indifference is on display in Orange County, which stumbles from one law-enforcement scandal to another. Internal reviews are launched. Outside authorities are consulted. Investigations drag on for years. Few people are punished. No matter how compelling the evidence, things always return to the same old place: business as usual.
The latest eye-opening news came last month when Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals found “the compelling evidence presented to the court related to serious misconduct engaged in by prosecution team members” in an ongoing murder trial. He recused two prosecutors from the case — a moot point, given that they both have since been elected as judges.
Both deny knowing about an allegedly altered police report that is at the heart of the allegations, but the judge’s decision is the latest black eye for the district attorney’s office. The case involves Cole Wilkins, a Long Beach man facing a murder trial after a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff died in a car wreck after swerving to avoid a stolen stove that fell off Wilkins’ truck.
The original California Highway Patrol report blamed the victim’s speed, according to a Register report. A CHP officer changed it to say that the accident wasn’t the fault of the deputy who was driving and thus bolstered the charge against Wilkins. Goethals slammed the DA’s office for failing to tell Wilkins’ lawyers about the original report, saying it was exculpatory. The DA’s office said that even if they had known about it the information was immaterial to the case.
This latest news adds to the concerns expressed by the public defender’s office and some prominent legal scholars, who have questioned the integrity of the Orange County criminal-justice system in light of the ongoing “snitch” scandal.
As the Register has reported, the law only allows informants to get confessions from inmates who don’t have lawyers and have not been formally charged. Yet the newspaper revealed “a secret and well-organized network of snitches, some paid, operating among the county’s nearly 5,000 inmates, a world where some jailhouse informants essentially serve as undercover agents for law enforcement.” Prosecutors also have been “accused of another kind of illegal practice: withholding information about jailhouse informants from defense lawyers in violation of discovery laws.”
The revelations have undermined quite a few of the DA’s criminal cases, and caused Judge Goethals to remove the entire district attorney’s office from the penalty phase of the trial in the case of the county’s worst mass murder. Goethals issued an astounding rebuke to the local justice system.
The scandal evoked national media attention and even a scathing editorial in the New York Times, which complained about “blatant” and “systemic” problems in the DA’s office while calling for a federal investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice. A group of 31 prominent law professors and attorneys and six national legal organizations in 2015 cited that Times article as part of their letter to then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch calling for a federal investigation of the Orange County justice system. “Compelling evidence of pervasive police and prosecutorial misconduct in Orange County … has caused us great concern,” they wrote.
This is a county where former Sheriff Mike Carona served 52 months of a 66-month sentence for felony witness tampering. In 2007, the DA’s office released a grand jury inquiry into the beating death of John Chamberlain in the Theo Lacy jail that documented appalling behavior by the deputies. These cases are worth revisiting, given that the system continues to be plagued by scandal. When will enough be enough?
It’s unlikely DA Tony Rackauckas will follow Chapman University law professor Mario Mainero’s suggestion he resign and be replaced by a “political caretaker” until the 2018 election. The Office of Independent Review has proven itself nearly worthless. I’m unaware of any easy answers, as the federal investigation gets going and court cases unfold. But maybe if Orange County residents got a little more agitated at the situation, there’d be more pressure for a solution.
Image by Victor Moussa