At­tor­neys blast use of jail ‘snitch’

In clos­ing ar­gu­ments, killer’s lawyers al­lege de­cep­tion by O.C. Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment.

Los Angeles Times - - CITY & STATE - By Anh Do anh.do@la­times.com

In clos­ing ar­gu­ments Thurs­day, at­tor­neys for a former tug­boat cap­tain who pleaded guilty to mur­der­ing eight peo­ple at a Seal Beach sa­lon in 2011 slammed pros­e­cu­tors for what they called “in­cred­i­ble” de­cep­tion — say­ing there is not enough ev­i­dence to move for­ward with a penalty phase to de­cide whether Scott Dekraai goes to death row.

The pros­e­cu­tion has sought to use ev­i­dence from a vet­eran jailhouse in­for­mant against Dekraai, hop­ing to boost the chances that the killer will be sen­tenced to death.

But Scott San­ders, Dekraai’s de­fense at­tor­ney, blasted the use of the “snitch” and what he de­scribed as a sys­tem­atic net­work con­trolled by the Or­ange County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment de­signed to thwart his client’s case.

The depart­ment “is hold­ing back ev­i­dence” that could be help­ful to his client, San­ders said. “This is a rogue depart­ment. They de­cided they didn’t have to follow the rules…. This con­ceal­ment could go on for­ever be­cause when peo­ple don’t want to tell the truth, we re­ally have no sense of what’s left.”

The so-called snitch scan­dal has rocked the Or­ange County district at­tor­ney’s of­fice and the Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment — and de­layed Dekraai’s sen­tenc­ing for the mass mur­der.

Su­pe­rior Court Judge Thomas Goethals has crit­i­cized sher­iff ’s of­fi­cials, who have vowed to search dili­gently for jailhouse records he has de­manded.

Sher­iff ’s of­fi­cials have re­peat­edly told the judge there were no more records to be found — only for other ma­te­rial to be sub­se­quently dis­cov­ered.

“How does this hap­pen?” Goethals asked Sher­iff San­dra Hutchens last month. “They were dead wrong.”

“They pos­si­bly did not look hard enough,” replied Hutchens, who also ac­knowl­edged that in­for­mants had been placed near tar­geted in­mates in the Or­ange County jail for years with the aim of elic­it­ing in­crim­i­nat­ing state­ments.

Dekraai pleaded guilty to mur­der­ing his ex-wife and 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.

“Re­moval of the death penalty is a rea­son­able re­sponse to out­ra­geous con­duct,” San­ders said as he be­gan a fi­nal de­fense ar­gu­ment in the penalty phase.

But Michael T. Murphy, the deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral who’s try­ing the case, coun­tered. “This is not about what did the Sher­iff’s Depart­ment do right or wrong,” he said, adding that the pri­mary ev­i­dence should fo­cus on “what did this man do and what does he de­serve?”

The de­fense’s be­lief that there are records show­ing “good be­hav­ior on the part of the client” is “pre­pos­ter­ous,” Murphy said.

On Thurs­day af­ter­noon, Goethals said he ex­pects to rule on the death penalty issue by the end of next week.

San­ders ar­gued 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 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 source in hopes of gain­ing a re­duced sen­tence.

In June, 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 Dekraai’s case.

But the re­port is un­likely to be the fi­nal word, as the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment and the Cal­i­for­nia at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice are in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mat­ter.

‘Re­moval of the death penalty is a rea­son­able re­sponse to out­ra­geous con­duct.’ — Scott San­ders, de­fense at­tor­ney for Scott Dekraai, con­victed of mur­der­ing eight peo­ple in 2011

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