SANTA ANA (CBSLA.com) — A grand jury report released Tuesday found that there is no evidence of a “structured” jailhouse informant program, despite accusations that Orange County prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies ran a secret operation to get confessions from defendants.
According to the 19-member panel, allegations of collusion between prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies are baseless.
“Allegations of a corrupt district attorney’s office conspiring with the sheriff’s department to violate citizens’ Constitutional rights are unfounded,” Orange County Grand Jury forewoman Dr. Carrie Carmody said during a news conference. “We’re not saying there are no informants. We’re not saying they don’t use informants. What we’re saying is there’s no proactive organized formal program to recruit informants and to let them loose in the jails to gather evidence against other people.”
The Orange County Grand Jury found that while the use of in-custody informants does occur in some criminal cases, “it is generally organic in nature, case specific and does not represent a conspiracy between the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County District Attorney’s Office.”
In the 28-page report did find that a few “rogue” deputies got carried away with their duties – something the grand jury blamed on the lack of supervision that have resulted in missteps by prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies, leading to an “erosion of trust in the criminal justice system.”
“The big concern that we have now is we do have some deputies, who are facing potential termination for these actions. That is very concerning to us, especially now in light of the grand jury finding that they were not properly trained or prepared to do the jobs that they thought they were doing correctly,” one sheriff official said.
Despite those shortcomings, both the District Attorney’s Office and sheriff’s department “have implemented organizational changes to repair the damage.”
“The grand jury found no definitive evidence of a structured jailhouse informant program operating in the Orange County jails,” according to the report. “Allegations of intentional motivation by a corrupt District Attorney’s Office and a conspiracy with a corrupt sheriff’s department to violate citizens’ constitutional rights are unfounded.”
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who represents Seal Beach mass shooter Scott Dekraai, filed a motion more than three years ago, claiming widespread abuse of jailhouse informants, who give information to prosecutors to win cases.
“When you hide evidence in jails, you usually don’t create an official program. There is no place in the United States, where they’re legally using informants where they have a program agenda laid out in details. The fact that the grand jury thought you need one of those or else you don’t have a jailhouse informant program is pretty troubling,” Sanders said.
The allegations snowballed as Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals ordered evidentiary hearings that led to the judge removing the District Attorney’s Office from the case.
The state Attorney General’s Office took over the case and is continuing to pursue the death penalty for Dekraai, who killed eight people inside and outside the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach in October 2011.
The allegations about misuse of jailhouse informants have also compelled prosecutors to cut deals with several other defendants, including one killer who was released from custody.
Goethals is presiding over a third round of evidentiary hearings to determine whether he should dismiss the death penalty as an option for Dekraai because of the county’s failure to turn over evidence in the case.
Sanders slammed the panel, saying its members appeared to be unaware of many cases of abuses involving informants within the jail. To conclude there is no systemic corruption is “insulting to Judge Goethals and to the Court of Appeal,” Sanders told reporters.
Sanders said he met with the grand jury in January for about four and a half hours and found the experience “pretty disappointing.” He said that when he tried to explain various examples of misconduct, “they were at a complete loss” and he was “met with blank stares.”
Sanders believes the grand jury met with prosecutors and essentially fell under their spell, and by the time they spoke with him, “I knew it was done.”
Sanders contended he can show a pattern of misconduct going back to the 1980s. He said the grand jury report is an “odd contrast” with the appellate court ruling, saying he fears the grand jury report will be used by sheriff’s investigators and prosecutors to say they did nothing wrong.
The Attorney General’s Office is conducting an investigation of the allegations of misconduct in the use of informants. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is conducting a civil review of the misconduct allegations.
The grand jury made a number of recommendations, including changes to record-keeping procedures to avoid problems with exchanging evidence with defense attorneys, and improved training for prosecutors and investigators so they don’t violate the rights of defendants.
The grand jury also recommended that the District Attorney’s Office “review their management and communication to improve inter-office communications and break down the negative effect of silo-ed operations.”
Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents District Attorney’s Office investigators and sheriff’s deputies, said the report validates the union’s stance that the issues are due to poor training of deputies.
He said at least two sheriff’s deputies involved in the Dekraai litigation face firing and he called on Hutchens to reconsider that action in light of the grand jury report.
Hutchens’ office issued a statement saying the report validates her past comments about informants. She said the panel was correct in saying it is more appropriate for the attorney general and U.S. Attorney to continue delving into the issue, not the way Goethals is doing with the latest round of evidentiary hearings.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office issued a five-page statement claiming the grand jury report “debunks phony news of prosecutorial corruption.”
“They issued a well-researched and fact-driven report in which each piece of evidence was triple-corroborated and reviewed by subject matter experts,” Rackauckas said.
His office claimed the “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.”
(©2017 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)