Prosecutorial and police misconduct are often dismissed as just a few bad apples doing a few bad apple-ish things. But what happens when it’s entrenched and systemic and goes unchecked for years? That looks to be the case in Orange County, California, where the situation got so completely out of hand this spring that Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals issued an order disqualifying the entire Orange County District Attorney’s Office (that’s all 250 prosecutors) from continuing to prosecute a major death penalty case.
After literally years of alleged misconduct involving jailhouse informants, as well as prosecutors’ repeated failures to turn over exculpatory material, Judge Goethals determined in March that the office can simply no longer work on the case of mass murderer Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty last year to killing his ex-wife and seven others at a beauty salon in 2011.
Revelations of misconduct in the Dekraai case have raised questions about patterns of obstruction and deception that have unraveled various other murder cases in the county, which has a population larger than that of 20 different states. Other cases involving informants who were eliciting illegal confessions have emerged, entire cases have collapsed, and more may follow. The story goes way back to the 1980s, as R. Scott Moxley explains at length in the OC Weekly, to a prosecutorial scandal that ended in the execution of one defendant and a lengthy sentence for his alleged co-conspirator. Their convictions were based on the testimony of various jailhouse informants even though they told conflicting stories. That scandal rocked the area then, and this new one shows eerie parallels.
All this is happening right up the road from Los Angeles, home of one of the most massive jailhouse informant scandals in history. In 1989, in an infamous interview with 60 Minutes and an explosive piece in the Los Angeles Times, former jailhouse snitch Leslie Vernon White demonstrated how he fabricated the confessions of other inmates, then leveraged them for reduced sentences. The White revelations led to a grand jury investigation that revealed that jailhouse snitches often lied, and that police and prosecutors—knowing they were lying—used them anyhow. L.A. has since enacted significant reforms of its jailhouse informant policies. Not so Orange County. And both the scope and scale of the Orange County shenanigans are remarkable.
One issue in the Dekraai case is whether deputies deliberately placed him near a prized informant to elicit illegal confessions. While preparing for the penalty phase of the trial, Santa Ana assistant public defender Scott Sanders, who is defending Dekraai, discovered that a jailhouse informant who had produced damning evidence about his client had done the same thing in another case Sanders was handling. After further investigation, Sanders claimed that a branch of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department called “special handling” would deliberately place jailhouse snitches in cells next to high-value inmates awaiting trials, with instructions to collect confessions, a practice that is unconstitutional.
Together with his law clerks, Sanders spent a year unearthing and then reconstructing a tranche of 60,000 pages of records indicating that the county sheriff’s office routinely used and coordinated with those informants to get around the constitutional prohibition on eliciting incriminating statements from defendants who had lawyered up and should not have been interrogated. The sheriff’s department has admitted that mistakes were made. The DA’s office claims there was nothing coordinated or systemic going on. But Judge Goethals disagreed, finding that the new revelations called into question the integrity of the entire Orange County District Attorney’s office.
Initially, Judge Goethals had ruled that the DA’s office was negligent in failing to turn exculpatory information over, finding that “the district attorney’s well-documented failures in this case, although disappointing, even disheartening to any interested member of this community, were negligent rather than malicious.” But that seems to have changed following further revelations of refusal to turn over evidence.
In an explosive moment following a hearing last year, Sanders revealed that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has maintained a massive, secret, 25-year-old computerized record-keeping system called TRED. These TRED documents were full of potentially exculpatory data, but the agency officials had systematically refused to turn any of them over, or even acknowledge their very existence, to defense counsel.
In his March order, Goethals wrote: “It is now apparent that the discovery situation in this case is far worse than the court previously realized. In fact, a wealth of potentially relevant discovery material—an entire computerized data base built and maintained by the Orange County Sheriff over the course of many years which is a repository for information related directly to the very issues that this court was examining as a result of the defendant’s motion—remained secret, despite numerous specific discovery orders issued by this court, until long after the initial evidentiary hearing in this case was concluded and rulings were made.”
Laura Fernandez of Yale Law School, who studies prosecutorial misconduct, says it’s amazing that both the sheriff’s office and the DA’s office worked together to cover up the misconduct: “From my perspective,” she says, “what really sets Orange County apart is the massive cover-up by both law enforcement and prosecutors—a cover-up that appears to have risen to the level of perjury and obstruction of justice. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors in Orange County have gone to such lengths to conceal their wide-ranging misconduct that they have effectively turned the criminal justice system on its head: dismissing charges and reducing sentences in extraordinarily serious cases, utterly failing to investigate unsolved crimes and many murders (by informants—in order to prevent that evidence from ever getting to defense lawyers), while simultaneously pushing forward where it would seem to make no sense (except that it conceals more bad acts by the state), as in the case of an innocent 14-year old boy who was wrongfully detained for two years.”
Dekraai has already pled guilty to killing eight people, so the issue in his case is whether his due process rights have been violated with respect to his sentence. His attorney, Sanders, says he should be ineligible for the death penalty because of the misconduct by the prosecution and the sheriff’s department. Judge Goethals has thus far declined to take capital punishment off the table. California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office was supposed to have inherited the prosecution of the Dekraai case, but she has appealed Goethals’ ruling. She also announced that her office will launch an investigation into all allegations. That has elicited its own criticism, with legal experts suggesting that a truly independent investigation needs to be launched; one that recognizes that the close ties between the attorney general’s office and the DA’s office warrant a completely neutral commission.