Crime & Justice

Orange County Sheriff to testify in jailhouse snitch scandal

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is scheduled to testify in OC Superior Court on July 5, 2017, about the use of jailhouse informants and the treatment of evidence related to their use. The testimony is part of a hearing to determine whether the death penalty can be pursued against Seal Beach mass murderer Scott Dekraai.
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is scheduled to testify in OC Superior Court on July 5, 2017, about the use of jailhouse informants and the treatment of evidence related to their use. The testimony is part of a hearing to determine whether the death penalty can be pursued against Seal Beach mass murderer Scott Dekraai.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is scheduled to testify Wednesday in a hearing aimed at getting to the bottom of the alleged snitch scandal in the county's jails. The hearing is part of the penalty phase in the case of Scott Dekraai, who shot and killed eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011.

Dekraai pleaded guilty to the murders in 2014, but his sentencing has been delayed while his defense team and Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals plumb the depths of the sheriff department’s use of confidential informants to shore up cases against high-profile inmates, including Dekraai. 

Law enforcement’s use of jailhouse informants to ensure inmates’ safety and to collect information to build cases is common and legal in many instances. But it’s illegal to use a jailhouse informant to intentionally coax information or statements from an inmate who is represented by an attorney. 

Dekraai’s lawyer, assistant public defender Scott Sanders, argues that sheriff’s deputies intentionally placed Dekraai and a prolific informant in adjacent cells and then recorded their conversations in hopes of gathering evidence to counter a potential insanity plea by Dekraai. 

Sanders also alleges that the sheriff’s department and Orange County District Attorney’s office have failed to turn over evidence of informant use. 

Sheriff Hutchens’ highly anticipated testimony comes more than a month into a special evidentiary hearing called by Judge Goethals to help him determine whether Dekraai’s constitutional rights to due process were so badly violated as to warrant dismissing the death penalty against him. 

Testimony in recent weeks from sheriff’s deputies and supervisors who have worked in Orange County jails has created a muddled picture of who knew what, and when, about jailhouse informants and evidence requested by the court and Dekraai’s defense team. Sanders has alleged that illegal use of informants in OC jails dates back decades and runs high up the chain of command. 

But an Orange County grand jury that investigated the issue recently concluded that illegal informant use was not widespread but rather "the work of a few rogue deputies who got carried away with efforts to be crime-fighters.” It also found that violations of discovery, the disclosure of evidence in court proceedings, had occurred “in a small number of cases” and was attributable to a “handful of individuals."

Judge Goethals has admonished the sheriff’s department on several occasions during the multi-year Dekraai case for failing to properly search for and turn over documents, even threatening last year to hold Sheriff Hutchens in contempt of court. 

If Goethals decides not to allow the death penalty for Dekraai, the ruling would come on top of his 2015 decision to remove the DA from prosecuting the case because of its failure to turn over evidence.

An appeals court upheld that ruling last year. The California Attorney General is now prosecuting the case. 

The state and federal departments of justice have both launched investigations into the DA and sheriff’s department over the use of confidential informants and failure to turn over evidence. 

Hutchens announced last week that she won’t seek re-election in 2018, ending a 10-year run as Orange County’s top cop. She said her decision was not related to mounting criticism of her over the informant scandal and other aspects of her tenure.