Crime & Justice

OC Sheriff Hutchens acknowledges informant use in county jails

File: Judge Thomas Goethals listens to arguments during a motion hearing in the trial of Scott Dekraai, on March 18, 2014 in Santa Ana, California. Goethals listened to testimony from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens on July 5, 2017 in a hearing to determine whether prosecutors can pursue the death penalty against Dekraai.
File: Judge Thomas Goethals listens to arguments during a motion hearing in the trial of Scott Dekraai, on March 18, 2014 in Santa Ana, California. Goethals listened to testimony from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens on July 5, 2017 in a hearing to determine whether prosecutors can pursue the death penalty against Dekraai.
Mark Boster-Pool/Getty Images

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Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens admitted that for years deputies in the county’s jails intentionally moved confidential informants near targeted defendants with the goal of eliciting incriminating statements from those defendants, a potential violation of their constitutional rights. 

Hutchens took the stand Wednesday to testify about the alleged misuse of jailhouse informants and the failure to turn over evidence to lawyers for Scott Dekraai, the perpetrator of the 2011 Seal Beach beauty salon massacre. 

During more than four hours of testimony, Sheriff Hutchens acknowledged that some of her deputies may have improperly used confidential informants to bolster criminal cases. But she said she's waiting for the California Department of Justice to complete a criminal investigation to determine whether or not any of her staff intentionally broke the law. 

"There is a course that we must go through to get to the truth,” she said.

Hutchens wore a houndstooth jacket and heels before a courtroom packed with reporters, TV cameras, family members of Dekraai’s victims and other observers. 

Dekraai’s lawyer, assistant public defender Scott Sanders, grilled Hutchens about why it took several years for her department to turn over records documenting the movement of inmates, including those who worked as informants. She suggested there was “confusion” over what the records were called and said the sheriff’s department had turned over those records in other cases. 

She also said she thought there had been confusion surrounding different types of confidential informants — jailhouse informants can be used legally under certain circumstances — and that “semantics" contributed to misunderstandings about potential criminal wrongdoing and failure to turn over documents in the Dekraai case. 

The sheriff conceded that jail deputies were poorly trained on the proper use of informants and disclosure of records. She took responsibility for that and said the sheriff’s department is working to remedy the problems.

Hutchens said she largely agreed with the findings of an Orange County grand jury that recently determined that improper use of informants was "the work of a few rogue deputies.” But she testified that some supervisors may have known about the practice after Sanders presented multiple pieces of evidence suggesting such. 

She said three deputies were the subject of an internal investigation into potential wrongdoing. 

Throughout her testimony, Hutchens repeatedly noted she had read little of the tens of thousands of pages of evidence brought to light in the Dekraai case and others linked to the informant scandal that’s shaken the Orange County justice system in recent years. 

Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy, who is prosecuting Dekraai, declined to question the sheriff after Sanders concluded his questioning. 

Judge Thomas Goethals, who has in the past threatened to hold Hutchens in contempt of court for failure to turn over evidence in the Dekraai case, asked the sheriff why it was so hard for her staff to find and turn over documents that appeared to be readily available on shared file systems. 

He also expressed incredulity about a new trove of documents — potentially 6,800 pages of jailhouse records — brought to light by a witness in May that hadn’t been previously turned over to the court. 
 
"I apologize that we apparently did not know where all of these items were being kept,” Hutchens said. 

“I’m not trying to give you a hard time,” Goethals said, acknowledging the sheriff’s hefty responsibilities. “But you’re Harry Truman. The buck stops with you." 

"It does,” Hutchens said. 

"I’ve heard repeatedly that everything has been turned over and yet time after time that has turned out not to be true,” Goethals said. 

Sheriff Hutchens’ testimony was part of a hearing to help Goethals determine whether or not to allow prosecutors to pursue the death penalty against Dekraai.

Dekraai’s attorneys are expected to call their last witness in the hearing on Thursday.