Crime & Justice

Grand jury finds no jailhouse snitch program in Orange County

This file photo shows Scott Dekraai, who killed eight people in a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011, with his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, during a motion hearing in Santa Ana on March 18, 2014. Sentencing in his case has been delayed by allegations of misuse of jailhouse informants in Orange County. A grand jury report released June 13, 2017 found no evidence of a widespread informant program.
This file photo shows Scott Dekraai, who killed eight people in a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011, with his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, during a motion hearing in Santa Ana on March 18, 2014. Sentencing in his case has been delayed by allegations of misuse of jailhouse informants in Orange County. A grand jury report released June 13, 2017 found no evidence of a widespread informant program.
AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Mark Boster, Pool

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An Orange County grand jury has found no evidence of a widespread conspiracy between the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s office to illegally use jailhouse informants to aid in convicting inmates. 

In a report presented Tuesday, the grand jury found that while informants were used in county jails — sometimes improperly — such incidents were "the work of a few rogue deputies who got carried away with efforts to be crime-fighters."

“Allegations of a corrupt District Attorney’s office conspiring with the Sheriff’s Department to violate citizens’ constitutional rights are unfounded,” grand jury foreperson Carrie Carmody said Tuesday during a presentation of the report. 

The report, “The Myth of the Orange County Jailhouse Informant Program,” comes after a nearly yearlong investigation during which the 19-member watchdog body read through more than 40,000 pages of documents, interviewed more than 150 people and sat in on hours of court hearings, including in the case of mass murderer Scott Dekraai. 

Potential misuse of jail informants in Orange County came to light several years ago during the criminal case against Dekraai, who killed eight people at a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011. Dekraai’s lawyer, Asst. Public Defender Scott Sanders, has since alleged that the district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department maintained a network of informants in county jails over many years and deployed them to collect evidence from fellow inmates in hopes of bolstering criminal cases led by the district attorney’s office. 

Some courts and investigative bodies have found truth in Sanders’ allegations. Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who is overseeing the Dekraai case, removed the DA’s office from the Dekraai case in 2015, saying the defendant’s due process rights had been violated when OC sheriff’s deputies either lied or knowingly withheld evidence from the court. The DA’s office and sheriff’s department often work closely on criminal cases. 

An appeals court upheld the ruling in November, citing "extensive misconduct” on the part of the DA’s office and sheriff’s department.

Convictions in at least a half-dozen other serious cases have been put in jeopardy because of alleged misuse of informants, and Sanders has said there could be dozens more. 

In May, Judge Goethals dismissed a first-degree murder charge in one high-profile case because of the prosecutor’s failure to disclose key evidence in the case to the defense team. 

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was opening an investigation into alleged civil rights violations. The California Attorney General’s office also has an open investigation into the issue. 

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department said in a news release that the grand jury report validated prior assertions made by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and “confirms a departmentally sanctioned program does not exist.” 

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas praised the thoroughness of the report in a statement and blamed Sanders, Dekraai’s lawyer, and the media for creating a false scandal. 

"This controversy was created by a public defender desperate to spare a mass-murderer the death penalty after the OCDA secured the guilty plea and, at a minimum, a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The media, despite being presented with the truth on multiple occasions by the OCDA, reported whatever the public defender said, which was then parroted by law professors and retired politicians without doing any investigation.”

Sanders criticized the grand jury investigation for relying on the word of prosecutors and law enforcement, writing in a statement that the body "never closely examined allegations of long-term informant evidence concealment.”

He said he was only questioned six months after the grand jury began its investigation. "It was immediately apparent that the committee had spoken with and relied upon the word of numerous prosecutors and members of law enforcement—and was fully prepared to embrace their narrative in place of a meaningful, independent investigation,” Sanders wrote.

Here are five takeaways from the Orange County Grand Jury report:

1) The “rogue deputies” that misused confidential informants were poorly supervised and sometimes unaware of the consequences of their actions, the grand jury found. It "found no evidence that their intent was to violate or deny inmates of their rights,” rather concluding that the deputies poorly understood their legal duties to preserve and hand over evidence to defense teams and weren’t being properly supervised.  

2) The use of confidential informants by the Orange County Sheriff's Department "is almost always organic in nature, narrowly focused, and primarily to ensure the safety and security of the jails, and not to investigate crimes.”

Informants can be legally used in jails when the purpose is to ensure safety. It’s illegal to use an informant to surrepticiously elicit testimony from inmates that could later be used as evidence against them. 

3) The grand jury thinks Judge Thomas Goethals should focus on sentencing mass murderer Scott Dekraai, not looking for widespread misconduct in Orange County criminal justice agencies. The Dekraai case has dragged on for years because of the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

The grand jury report states: "The current search to get to the bottom of potential discovery violations in the Dekraai case has devolved into a witch-hunt for agency corruption; a search that after 5 years and more than 40,000 pages of court documents remains fruitless.”

It said the appropriate agencies to investigate widespread misconduct are the U.S. Department of Justice and the state attorney general’s office, which both have ongoing investigations.

Goethals has been holding hearings for the last several weeks aimed at determining whether the alleged misconduct in Dekraai’s case was so grave as to warrant a dismissal of the death penalty. 

4) The grand jury found that police agencies that use Orange County jails, rather than sheriff’s deputies, are the “weak link” in the proper use of informants and collection and submission of related evidence. Most of the county’s 25 policing agencies use the Orange County jail, and they're often responsible for the initial investigations for criminal cases. 

In particular, the grand jury cited gang-related cases led by the Anaheim Police Department in which the use of confidential informants was later cited as evidence of a widespread informant program within the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. The grand jury blamed Anaheim detectives for failing to turn over all evidence to prosecutors at the DA’s office.

5) The DA’s office isn’t following its own, new guidance on confidential informants. In 2015, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas ordered an evaluation of its informant policies by a panel of outside legal experts. The report found the DA’s office "functions as a ship without a rudder” and that lack of oversight had “led to repeated legal errors.” 

In the wake of the report, the DA’s office adopted new procedures for using confidential informants and compiled a manual that was released in August 2016. But the grand jury found in interviews carried out up to three months after the manual’s release that some prosecutors weren’t even aware of it. 

"The lack of awareness about changes in informant policy is an example of the poor communication, leadership deficiencies, and current training gaps in the OCDA’s office,” the grand jury report concluded.