It’s been a busy week since an Orange County judge found that local law enforcement and prosecutors relied on unconstitutional practices involving jailhouse informants to seek a death sentence in the case of Scott Dekraai and ruled that the Orange County District Attorney was not fit to continue prosecuting the case. Judge Goethals’ ruling last Friday followed the discovery of an entrenched and illegal jailhouse informant network in Orange County by local public defender Scott Sanders, which has potentially tainted innumerable cases. See a comprehensive timeline of events in the case via OC Weekly writer Scott Moxley here.
According to one motion filed by the Orange County Public Defender, last year, cases involving 18 defendants were shown to have been impacted by the misuse of jailhouse informants and the concealment of critical related evidence.
Judge Goethals removed the Orange County District Attorney’s office (OCDA) from Dekraai altogether, meaning that Attorney General Kamala Harris will have to step in and prosecute the case. AG Harris’s office has recently received criticism, including from the Ninth Circuit, for deciding to appeal judicial findings of prosecutorial misconduct in Riverside and Santa Clara counties rather than seriously investigate them.
We will find out today which tack AG Harris will take in Orange County, since she has until the end of the day to decide whether or not to appeal Judge Goethals’ ruling. A decision either way shouldn’t stop her from taking appropriate action to investigate the OCDA. [See update at bottom of this post.]
Here’s a quick roundup of some of the events that have followed Judge Goethals’ ruling:
1. OC Register columnist David Whiting asked whether District Attorney Tony Rackauckas should resign over the scandal. Whiting concluded that, while a resignation would probably cause too much disruption, it will be time to clean house come the next election for District Attorney. http://www.ocregister.com/articles/rackauckas-654596-attorney-office.html
2. Vice ran a story discussing why attempts to address the improper use of jailhouse informants through changes to court procedure would not be as effective as you might think, and pointed out that in addition to potential wrongful convictions, the real harm of this kind of misconduct is allowing the guilty to go free. http://www.vice.com/read/jailhouse-snitch-testimony-is-backfiring-in-california-318
3. Vice’s concerns are entirely legitimate in light of the numerous cases in the past year where OCDA has had to reduce sentences or drop charges due to the discovery of the jailhouse informant network. This week the OCDA made yet another concession by striking a deal with gang member Bryant Islas, who was facing a life sentence until documents found by the public defender in Dekraai revealed that “an informant used by Santa Ana Police bragged to his handlers that he was going to get a confession from Islas for the attempted murder of rival gang member Michael Salinas.” He got a deal for 6 years. http://www.ocregister.com/articles/islas-654929-attorney-cases.html. OC Weekly writer Scott Moxley notes that the Islas case involves assistant DA Erik Petersen, who was removed from another case last year due to his improper use of jailhouse informant testimony and was also involved in Dekraai: http://blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing/2015/03/rackauckas_massiah.php
We will post an update later today if the Attorney General decides to lodge an appeal in Dekraai.
Update: Attorney General Kamala Harris has decided to appeal Judge Goethals’ ruling. More soon.