O.C. grand jury dis­misses jail snitch scan­dal

Pros­e­cu­tor and sher­iff praise re­port call­ing in­for­mant pro­gram a ‘myth.’ But crit­ics de­cry the find­ings.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By James Queally and Richard Win­ton

For years, ac­cu­sa­tions that Or­ange County prose­cu­tors and sher­iff ’s deputies ran a se­cret pro­gram that used jail­house in­for­mants to ob­tain con­fes­sions from crim­i­nal de­fen­dants have dogged some of the area’s top law en­force­ment lead­ers.

The in­for­mant scan­dal has sparked a re­trial in at least one mur­der case and stalled the pro­ceed­ings against a man who con­fessed to gun­ning down eight peo­ple in Seal Beach.

On Tues­day, how­ever, the county’s grand jury dis­missed the en­tire scan­dal as a “myth,” re­leas­ing the find­ings of a months-long in­ves­ti­ga­tion that was hailed as vin­di­ca­tion by prose­cu­tors and dis­missed as a white­wash by de­fense at­tor­neys.

In a 28-page re­port, the grand jury said crit­ics and me­dia out­lets had blown the scan­dal out of pro­por­tion af­ter it be­came cen­tral to the case of Scott Dekraai, who has ad­mit­ted he walked into a Seal Beach hair sa­lon and fa­tally shot eight peo­ple in 2011.

Grand jurors found no ev­i­dence that prose­cu­tors or the Sher­iff’s De­part­ment had used “mer­ce­nary in­for­mants” — snitches who are pro­vided with fa­vors or valu­ables to so­licit in­for­ma­tion from a spe­cific in­mate — to ob­tain con­fes­sions from de­fen­dants.

“Al­though the use of in­cus­tody in­for­mants does oc­cur, it is gen­er­ally or­ganic in na­ture, case spe­cific and does not rep­re­sent a con­spir­acy,” the re­port said.

Sher­iff San­dra Hutchens and Dist. Atty. Tony Rack­auckas, who have both faced in­tense crit­i­cism over the

con­tro­versy, re­sponded by say­ing the grand jury had val­i­dated what both had re­peat­edly said be­fore.

But the re­port stands in stark con­trast to al­le­ga­tions lev­eled by Dekraai’s at­tor­ney and find­ings by Su­pe­rior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who is pre­sid­ing over Dekraai’s trial. Goethals has said he is “sat­is­fied be­yond any doubt” that the Sher­iff ’s De­part­ment had a pro­gram that placed in­for­mants next to in­mates with the aim of coax­ing con­fes­sions out of them — a prac­tice the law for­bids. An ap­pel­late court has also de­ter­mined that the Sher­iff’s De­part­ment was run­ning a “so­phis­ti­cated” in­for­mant pro­gram in the jails.

Dekraai’s at­tor­ney, Or­ange County As­sis­tant Pub­lic De­fender Scott San­ders, crit­i­cized the re­port, say­ing that grand jurors had failed to un­der­stand the scale of the jail­house in­for­mant prob­lem and that their find­ings broke with rul­ings handed down by sev­eral sit­ting judges.

“We don’t think this is par­tic­u­larly good work by the grand jury here,” he said. “They are tak­ing on the judge, the court of ap­peals, who’ve all de­cided this is sys­temic is­sue. It is kind of an em­bar­rass­ing ef­fort.”

The U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice and the Cal­i­for­nia at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice are con­duct­ing sep­a­rate in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the scan­dal.

The scan­dal ex­ploded in 2015, when Goethals re­moved the district at­tor­ney’s of­fice from Dekraai’s case af­ter San­ders ar­gued that author­i­ties in­ten­tion­ally placed Dekraai in a cell near a well-known in­for­mant. The case is now be­ing pros­e­cuted by the state at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice.

Dekraai, a for­mer tug­boat cap­tain, has pleaded guilty to mur­der­ing his exwife and the seven other vic­tims in the sa­lon shoot­ing. But the in­for­mant scan­dal has de­layed pro­ceed­ings to de­ter­mine whether he will face the death penalty. Dekraai’s at­tor­ney has ar­gued that the death penalty should be tossed out be­cause author­i­ties can­not be trusted to turn over rel­e­vant ev­i­dence.

San­ders con­tends that jail­house in­for­mants and their han­dlers have vi­o­lated the rights of in­mates for years by coax­ing in­for­ma­tion from de­fen­dants who are rep­re­sented by lawyers. An ap­pel­late court up­held Goethals’ de­ci­sion to re­move the district at­tor­ney’s of­fice from Dekraai’s case, adding that sher­iff ’s deputies were clearly mov­ing in­for­mants around the jail to place them near spe­cific in­mates.

De­fense at­tor­neys in other cases have since ar­gued that prose­cu­tors failed to dis­close in­for­ma­tion about the use of in­for­mants dur­ing dis­cov­ery, which would vi­o­late their clients’ rights.

Last year, the fall­out of the so-called snitch scan­dal led Goethals to or­der a re­trial for an Ana­heim man who was con­victed of aid­ing in the 1998 mur­der of a preg­nant woman.

An in­for­mant’s tes­ti­mony was used against the man at a 2006 trial, but a de­fense at­tor­ney ar­gued prose­cu­tors had failed to dis­close in­for­ma­tion about the wit­ness’ his­tory as an in­for­mant.

In Dekraai’s case, the in­for­mant was a for­mer shot­caller in the Mex­i­can Mafia who had be­come a pro­lific in­for­mant in the hopes of gain­ing a re­duced sen­tence. Fer­nando Perez was fac­ing 40 years to life in pri­son for a weapons charge but ul­ti­mately re­ceived a re­duced sen­tence and could be freed in less than seven years.

Ar­gu­ing that the scan­dal goes far be­yond Dekraai’s case, San­ders has said the Sher­iff ’s De­part­ment in­ten­tion­ally hid logs doc­u­ment­ing the move­ments of known in­for­mants in­side the jails.

The grand jury re­port, how­ever, said the logs did not show col­lu­sion be­tween prose­cu­tors and sher­iff ’s of­fi­cials.

“The con­tents of this log shed lit­tle light on Dekraai’s move­ments while in-cus­tody,” the grand jury wrote. “It would seem that it was the fail­ure to dis­close the log, rather than the ac­tual con­tents, that cre­ated much of the angst.”

The grand jury re­port also dis­missed the hous­ing as­sign­ments of Dekraai and the in­for­mant as “co­in­ci­den­tal.”

“There are only a small num­ber of cells for high-pro­file or spe­cial cus­tody in­mates, and both the in­for­mant and Dekraai would have needed to be placed in pro­tec­tive cus­tody. The place­ment of Dekraai was rea­son­able within this con­text,” the grand jury wrote.

The re­port said the ex­is­tence of in­for­mants in the jail did not lend any cre­dence to al­le­ga­tions that they were be­ing ac­tively cul­ti­vated or moved around the jails by county law en­force­ment. The use of in­for­mants by the Sher­iff ’s De­part­ment is nor­mally limited to gath­er­ing in­tel­li­gence that would pre­serve the se­cu­rity of the jails, rather than in­ves­ti­gat­ing crimes, the re­port said.

“The [grand jury] found no direct, ma­te­rial ev­i­dence of an or­ga­nized, rec­og­nized ‘pro­gram’ of jail­house in­for­mants,” the re­port said.

In in­stances when in­ves­ti­ga­tors or prose­cu­tors failed to pro­vide de­fense at­tor­neys with in­for­ma­tion about a jail­house in­for­mant’s back­ground of co­op­er­at­ing, the grand jury placed the blame on a lack of su­per­vi­sion rather than a con­certed ef­fort to deny de­fen­dants their con­sti­tu­tional rights.

The ma­jor­ity of cases in­volv­ing in­for­mants given fa­vors or le­niency for co­op­er­a­tion were run by other law en­force­ment agen­cies, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, which cited a num­ber of in­for­mant-driven gang in­ves­ti­ga­tions run by the Ana­heim Po­lice De­part­ment. Ana­heim po­lice used two such jail­house in­for­mants to bring nearly 30 cases to the district at­tor­ney’s of­fice, grand jurors wrote.

Rack­auckas has scoffed at al­le­ga­tions that his of­fice was en­gaged in any mis­con­duct and has pointed to the rar­ity in which in­for­mants’ tes­ti­mony is used at trial. In 2015, the district at­tor­ney’s of­fice filed 8,600 felony cases, but jail­house in­for­mants were used in only three cases, he said last year.

Rack­auckas re­leased a state­ment Tues­day prais­ing the grand jury re­port, which he said de­bunked a “me­dia witch hunt” tar­get­ing his of­fice.

“This con­tro­versy was cre­ated by a pub­lic de­fender des­per­ate to spare a mass mur­derer the death penalty af­ter the [prose­cu­tors] se­cured the guilty plea and, at a min­i­mum, a sen­tence of life with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role,” he said in the state­ment. “The me­dia, de­spite be­ing pre­sented with the truth on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions by the [district at­tor­ney’s of­fice], re­ported what­ever the pub­lic de­fender said, which was then par­roted by law pro­fes­sors and re­tired politi­cians with­out do­ing any in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

In a sep­a­rate state­ment, the Sher­iff’s De­part­ment said it hoped the re­port would put an end to the al­le­ga­tions sur­round­ing the snitch scan­dal, and hoped Dekraai’s case would fi­nally move for­ward.

Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

AN AP­PEL­LATE court had de­ter­mined that the O.C. Sher­iff ’s De­part­ment had a “so­phis­ti­cated” in­for­mant pro­gram in the jails, but the county’s grand jury found no such ev­i­dence. De­fense lawyers dis­missed its re­port.

Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

OR­ANGE COUNTY Dist. Atty. Tony Rack­auckas praised the grand jury re­port, which he said de­bunked a “me­dia witch hunt” tar­get­ing his of­fice.

Gary Friedman Los An­ge­les Times

THE SCANDALbe­came a key is­sue in the case of Scott Dekraai, who has ad­mit­ted to fa­tally shoot­ing eight peo­ple at a Seal Beach hair sa­lon in 2011.

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