Illegal misuse of informants. Unconstitutional withholding of evidence. Overturned convictions for murder and other major crimes.
For the past couple of years, Orange County has been rocked with a jailhouse informants scandal that continues to undermine faith in the criminal justice system. Yet more than two years after the scandal was unearthed, its full extent – and how many defendants are affected – is still unknown.
Now, civil rights advocates are launching a new campaign on the issue.
A group of local residents plans to show up to courtrooms starting this morning to watch criminal case hearings and keep an eye out for misconduct, like prosecutors failing to hand over evidence that could help defendants.
The effort – dubbed “OC Court Watch” – is spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which trained about 40 observers this week on what to look out for.
“The violations that we’re witnessing go to the very core of our justice system,” said Brendan Hamme, a staff attorney with the ACLU.
The goal of Court Watch, he said, is to send a message to Orange County law enforcement – led by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens – “that we expect more from our public officials, that we expect justice, and that we are going to watch and hold them accountable.”
The plan today is for court watchers to fan out across six courtrooms in Santa Ana and take notes on pre-trial criminal hearings, where attorneys discuss evidence disclosure issues – also known as Brady disclosures – and use of informants.
To make themselves visible, they plan on wearing green t-shirts that ask “Have You Turned Over Your Brady Evidence?”
Observers are asked to fill out paper questionnaires about each case they observe, with questions like whether the judge asked the prosecutors whether they turned over evidence and what kind of discussion ensued.
“It’s required under law that the prosecution give to the defense any evidence that could be favorable to them,” Caitlin Sanderson, deputy director of advocacy with the ACLU’s Orange County office, said during the training Tuesday in Santa Ana.
“In theory, it’s not supposed to be about winning, it’s supposed to be about justice,” she added.
The informants scandal dates back to 2014, when a public defender, Scott Sanders, uncovered an illegal informants network in county jails.
A series of court hearings later revealed that prosecutors did not disclose key evidence from defendants, including sheriff’s department notes that cast doubt on an informant’s reliability.
After the revelations were brought to the fore by Sanders, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals removed DA prosecutors from the biggest mass murder case in county history, Scott Dekraai’s massacre of eight people in a Seal Beach beauty salon.
Goethals also alleged perjury was committed by law enforcement officials who had claimed under oath that an inmate location-tracking system didn’t exist, when in fact it did.
The situation has led to calls by national legal authorities and the New York Times for a federal investigation into what has been characterized as systemic violations of defendants’ constitutional rights.
And as a result of the violations, at least a half dozen people serving life sentences – for murder or other major crimes – have had their convictions overturned.
“The DA is letting people who [were found] guilty of serious crimes go just to avoid having to disclose more information about the scope of their misconduct,”
“We still don’t know the extent of the misconduct. We only know the high profile cases that have come to the media’s attention,” he added.
The court watchers plan on observing the courtrooms of Superior Court judges Richard M. King, Elizabeth Macias, Andre Manssourian, John D. Conley, Fred W. Slaughter, and another unspecified judge.
After today’s effort, ACLU organizers plan to collect the data observers gathered and produce a report about what was witnessed, and decide with local community members what to do next.
Addressing the training session this week was Ronnie Carmona, whose son Arthur Carmona was released from prison in 2000 after an Orange County judge found he was wrongfully convicted of armed robbery. He had been sentenced to 12 years in prison, and spent two years behind bars before he was released.
“The community holds the power to force the change that is badly needed,” Ronnie Carmona said. “It is time to step up and fight for justice.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.