The California Court of Appeal’s 53-page ruling late last month in the ongoing jailhouse “snitch” scandal was the latest court rebuke of the local “justice” system. The blowback is one for the record books: The entire district attorney’s office has now been removed from handling the penalty phase of the bloodiest mass-murder case in Orange County’s history.

Scott Dekraai has already pleaded guilty to murdering eight people at a beauty salon in Seal Beach in 2011, so judicial malfeasance will not set a guilty man free. But the actions of the DA’s office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department are delaying justice for the families of Dekraai’s victims. This case has also had the unfortunate effect of impacting the legal proceedings in other cases, too, as six attempted murder and murder cases have “unraveled” in the aftermath.

The Register’s Tony Saavedra captured the gist of the situation in an October column: “Prosecutors and deputies used a jailhouse informant to gather evidence against Dekraai after he had an attorney, a violation of court procedure and law.” Furthermore, the trial-court judge accused deputies of dishonesty and removed local prosecutors from the case citing fairness issues, leaving it in the hands of the state attorney general’s office.

The appeals court’s ruling has been described as blistering: “(T)he evidence demonstrates the (Orange County Sheriff’s Department), in its secondary capacity as county jailer, created and maintained a (Confidential Informant) program whereby it continued to investigate criminal activity in contravention of targeted defendants’ constitutional rights. … The (Orange County District Attorney’s) loyalty to protect its primary law-enforcement partner and its work interfered with its professional and ethical responsibilities.”

There are reasonable arguments over which agency is more responsible for this appalling and inexplicable mess. It’s appalling because even people who plead guilty to heinous crimes deserve a fair trial. Without a fair criminal-justice system, the civic foundations of society crumble. Government officials that cheat or play fast-and-loose with the rules undermine a system each of us might depend upon if accused of a crime we didn’t commit.

The mess was inexplicable because Dekraai had already pleaded guilty. The death penalty is rarely enforced in California, anyway. If law enforcement officials behaved this way in this case, it suggests the behavior may be a habit. That’s what the court suggested, too, when it wrote, “The magnitude of the systemic problems cannot be overlooked.”

The DA’s office, for its part, argues the problems were inadvertent. In its brief to the appeals court, the California Attorney General’s office advanced a similar narrative, noting although the trial court “abused its discretion,” no conflicts of interest in the case resulted, and nothing occurred that would prevent Dekraai from getting fair treatment in the penalty phase.

To the latter point, the attorney general stated, “In fact, Dekraai’s emphasis on the systemic misconduct in the OCDA and the OCSO warrants against a finding of recusal in this case since recusal is to ensure that an individual defendant is treated fairly, i.e., that he is not treated differently than anyone else in his circumstances.”

The systemic issues are the most concerning ones because they go to the heart of our justice system. Was the attorney general really saying the DA’s recusal is wrong because Dekraai’s potentially unfair treatment is just as unfair as everyone else’s? Fortunately, the courts seem more concerned than the state’s highest-ranking “justice” official about a system that may be fundamentally unjust.

The DA received tough criticism in the latest ruling, but the Sheriff’s Department has just as much explaining to do. As the Register reported, “After Orange County sheriff’s officials were ordered to turn over all the records they had kept on jailhouse informants, deputies stopped keeping one set of secret records and made plans to start a new one, according to evidence released in court.”

The DA’s office has now instituted a wide range of new training programs and reforms. That’s good news; but whenever scandals emerge from law-enforcement agencies, there are always plans for more training. The one thing usually missing (thanks to union protections and bureaucratic inertia): appropriate punishment for those involved in the wrongdoing.

I’ve written extensively about police abuse and prosecutorial misconduct and the cozy relationships between the two groups of allies. When, say, a deputy is accused of excessive force, he or she is investigated by fellow deputies and any prosecution decision is made by prosecutors. So court findings of collusion between the two groups might help explain some of the frustration expressed after, say, high-profile police shootings.

The appeals court’s ruling is about far more than whether a man who pleaded guilty to mass murder will spend his life in prison or be sentenced to death. The issues raised by the courts touch on the nature of our justice system — and extend well beyond Orange County. If the problems are systemic, then so too must be the solutions.

Image by Possawat Sepa

Featured Publications