The Orange County public has been sadly tolerant for years of disturbing scandals in its Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office. The reason for this, I believe, is a common tendency among law-abiding voters to give the “good guys” a break to cheat a little, so long as the “bad guys” get what they deserve.
Yet what happens when the bad guys don’t get what they deserve because of behavior within the law-enforcement community? What if these scandals lead to the retrial of several murder cases, resulting in reduced sentences and overturned convictions? Alleged cheating isn’t so funny when it leads to gross miscarriages of justice, is it?
What if, say, the man who pleaded guilty to the worst mass murder in the county’s history is spared the death penalty because the courts can’t trust that a defendant will receive due process and a fair penalty phase in the trial? In fact, that just happened, in a case where the judge believed law-enforcement officials engaged in “chronic obstructionism.”
Indeed, Judge Thomas Goethals struck the death penalty from consideration last month in the Scott Dekraai murder case. Dekraai pleaded guilty to a 2011 shooting at a hair salon in Seal Beach where his ex-wife had worked, but the trial’s sentencing phase has been delayed for years because of the ongoing Orange County “snitch scandal.”
Deputies and prosecutors are accused of operating a confidential jailhouse informant program designed to gain confessions from inmates. The courts say that where such jailhouse snitches aren’t granted legal representation, the scheme violates their constitutional rights. In this case, the public defender accuses the Sheriff’s Department of housing a snitch near Dekraai to gain evidence to help assure he received the death penalty, although the prosecution claims it was merely a coincidence the informant was housed near Dekraai.
“What does an allegiance to the rule of law now require of this court?” asked Judge Goethals of Orange County Superior Court. He said he was referring to “law enforcement’s chronic failure to comply with this court’s lawful discovery orders, and the impact this chronic failure has on the defendant’s right to due process and a fair penalty trial.”
His answer, in the Aug. 18 decision, was to strike the death penalty as a potential punishment “despite the horrendous nature of his crimes.” That will mean a certain life sentence unless the state attorney general decides to appeal the decision.
It takes a nearly inconceivable level of foolishness to bungle a case in which a man already has confessed to murdering eight people and wounding one other, but District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens have managed to pull that off. Instead of taking responsibility for their failures, the two released appalling statements criticizing the judge.
“The court has for some time maintained hope that the Orange County District Attorney and the Orange County Sheriff, in the face of objectively verifiable evidence, would accept the reality” of the informant situation within the jails, Goethals wrote. But instead of accepting the court’s findings about “systemic problems” there, “members of the prosecution team chose to either deny, or ignore” the problems, with a byproduct being “the prosecution team’s chronic failure to comply” with discovery orders.
In response, Rackauckas’ office wrote, “Given the pattern and tenor of his previous rulings, Judge Goethals’ decision does not come as a surprise.” The statement from Hutchens’ office also shamefully evaded responsibility: “The decision to remove the death penalty rests at the feet of Judge Goethals and nobody else.”
Indeed, Rackauckas and Hutchens continue to deny operating a systematic informant program, despite the harsh rulings from the courts. They trumpet a grand jury report that calls the snitch program a myth and which instead blames “rogue deputies” and “a lack of supervision and laziness in the practice of law.” That report also pointed to leadership failures in the DA’s office, so it’s funny that local law enforcement takes such solace in it.
That grand jury report, however, “appears to be based on the expectation that such a program would have a documented strategic plan, a schedule of informants, formal training, a dedicated budget, job descriptions and other such bureaucracy one would expect from a bona fide government agency,” an Orange County Register editorial explains.
Let’s not forget that the judge at one point recused the entire Orange County District Attorney’s Office staff from the prosecution, thus turning the case over to the state attorney general. This remains a troubling scandal with far-reaching ramifications.
I believe the other reason that local residents have long tolerated these scandals involves politics. The main challenger for district attorney has his own deeply disturbing baggage, some of which I’ve covered in this column. Fair enough, but we’re never going to clean up the justice system until the public stops being so tolerant of this nonsense.
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