Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals said Friday that a “significant amount” of recently uncovered informant evidence should have been provided years ago to public defenders for convicted mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai.
Goethals made the stinging comment at a hearing on how to handle 1,157 pages of currently sealed deputy notes on jail informants that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department withheld until their existence was revealed this spring in another murder case.
This latest failure to disclose evidence to defense is expected to be used by county public defender Scott Sanders for new claims of outrageous government conduct to attempt to block the death penalty for Dekraai — who in 2014 pleaded guilty to in 2011 massacre of his ex-wife and seven others in a Seal Beach beauty salon, the largest mass murder in Orange County history.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ department has been “highly deceptive” on jail informant use, Sanders said today in court. “There is dishonesty; it is massive.”
In previous interviews with Voice of OC, Sheriff’s Department spokesmen have said the agency is investigating the actions Sanders’ uncovered, which they blamed on a lack of training.
On Wednesday, Sanders unsuccessfully argued before Superior Court John D. Conley for access to the same cache of notes for his defense of Daniel Patrick Wozniak — who in 2010 decapitated a Costa Mesa neighbor, and killed the man’s woman friend in an attempted cover-up.
Sanders told Conley he wanted the evidence to argue outrageous government conduct in his effort to also save Wozniak from the death penalty, but the judge rejected the request saying such material was irrelevant.
But in a last ditch effort, Sanders is filing a motion Sept. 2 in Conley’s court. Last December, a jury convicted Wozniak of the double murder, then in January recommended he be put to death.
On Friday, Goethals ordered District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ prosecution team, Sanders, county counsel, and municipal attorneys for interested police agencies back for argument on Sept. 22.
On that day the judge is to begin the laborious process of going over in chambers with government lawyers every line in the 1,157 pages of deputy notes to see what can be disclosed to Dekraai’s defense without compromising any investigations or endangering informants or their families.
Goethals said he was “disappointed” and “disturbed” that once again informant records “washed ashore” — three years after he ordered such disclosures in the wake of an unprecedented months-long hearing during which Sanders revealed an extensive jailhouse snitch program run by deputies that regularly violated the constitutional rights of inmates.
This put the Orange County criminal justice system itself on trial — at least a half-dozen convictions for murder or other serious convictions have been overturned as result of wayward informant use.
In recent weeks, the key question has been whether Goethals could address the discovery issues given his previous rulings.
In March 2015, Goethals issued an unprecedented ruling barring Rackauckas’ entire office from continuing to prosecute the death penalty for Dekraai — noting false testimony by sheriff’s deputies, similar prosecutor testimony, and continual failure to disclose informant evidence that showed the DA could not provide the defendant a fair trial.
Goethal’s ruling left it up to the state Attorney General’s Office to take over the prosecution of Dekraai. But the state opted to appeal Goethals’ ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana on behalf of the DA’s office.
And with it becoming apparent that the appeals process could drag on for years, Goethals was confronted Friday with the issue of what material now should be disclosed to Dekraai’s defense team.
After some legal review, all parties agreed that it was acceptable for Goethals to adjudicate a limited range of issues associated with the evidence disclosure problems.
The 1,157 pages under scrutiny are from a Sheriff’s Department computer file called the “Special Handling Log.” The Sheriff’s command says it wasn’t aware of the cache until February, but evidence brought forth by Sanders indicates it was widely known among deputies, including at least one commander, for years.
The cache was used by deputies — assigned to a special handling unit — to chart various aspects of dealing with informants [like those provided benefits for snooping] and those who offered helpful information without reward.
The existence of the log — also called an “unauthorized blog” by the Sheriff’s command — emerged last May in the Wozniak case, when Sanders elicited confusing testimony from department officers responsible for record keeping.
More Secret Records
This was the second time Sanders uncovered a secret record keeping system used by deputies and/or prosecutors.
During testimony in 2014, three deputies from the special handling unit denied there was a secret informant program in the County Jail in Santa Ana, denied that informants were moved to unconstitutionally illicit testimony from inmates, and claimed no notes regarding informants other than what already was turned over to the defense.
But by early 2015, Sanders’ subpoenas and added testimony revealed a secret computer system — called TRED — where the deputies daily recorded issues involving informants.
This is what prompted Goethals to recuse Rackauckas’ office from the Dekraai prosecution. In his ruling, the judge named two special handling deputies as providing less than honest testimony, Ben Garcia and Seth Tunstall.
During the Wozniak hearing this spring, testimony regarding the newly revealed Special Handling Log showed that Garcia, indeed, had kept notes. In fact, he produced a computer storage flash drive that included additional informant information.
But Garcia didn’t testify in the Wozniak hearing, because Conley ruled against such deputy testimony. And in a previous case late last year where a murder conviction was overturned, Garcia had invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
In the Wozniak hearing earlier this year, Sanders pointed out records indicating another special handling deputy, William Grover, allegedly “lied” in Dekraai testimony.
The 1,157 pages under review may well add grist to the criminal investigation that the state attorney general has said it is conducting regarding testimony in the Dekraai case.
During the hearing today, Goethals held up one of seven binders of the 1,157 pages, which he said he already had read thoroughly.
On the very first two pages, Goethals said there were entries implicating Garcia and police agencies in so-called “capers” with “goof-ball names” involving informants deployed to capture unguarded inmate comments.
“It is clear there is significant discoverable material,” said Goethals, who asserted that creating the cache notes was part of the deputies job in the jail.
And more is yet to come out, testimony today showed.
In both the Dekraai and Wozniak cases, Sanders has sought to determine what — if any — informant monitoring system the sheriff’s department installed after Jan. 31, 2013, the date of the last entry in the Special Handling Log, which had a first entry in 2008.
Goethals made of point of telling the court Friday that he noticed the log ceased when Sanders was given the large cache of records in 2013.
In the Wozniak case, Sanders was unsuccessful in learning whether there is a replacement system.
But after a Goethals’ query today, Daniel Wagner, head of Rackauckas’ homicide division and lead prosecutor of Dekraai said “additional material” will be forthcoming for judge’s review.
Rex Dalton can be reached directly at email@example.com.