Sheriff’s Department Believed It Had a Legal Right to Withhold Documents From The Court

Joshua Sudock/OC Register

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals during a court hearing.

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The Sheriff’s Department withheld documents from court disclosure, believing a section of the California penal code didn’t require the department to turn them over, retired Sheriff’s Lt. Catherine Irons testified Wednesday.

Judge Thomas Goethals has called for the ongoing hearing to determine whether or not he can trust the Sheriff’s Department to turn over all the materials he subpoenaed in 2013, as part of his court’s look into the Sheriff’s use of jailhouse informants.

Irons, who retired from the department in 2015, said withholding documents was to protect the “safety and security” of the jail.

“In your experience, when a request was made for classification records like the TREDs, a unilateral decision was made, we don’t give those out,” said Goethals, questioning Irons.

“That’s my understanding,” Irons responded.

The hearing is an outgrowth of the case of Scott Evans Dekraai, a mass murderer who has admitted shooting to death eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011. Goethals will determine if Dekraai’s rights were so seriously violated by the use of informants that he can’t receive the death penalty.

The involvement of an informant in Dekraai’s case spawned a broad inquiry into what’s known as the jailhouse snitch scandal, or how deputies moved and worked informants in the jail to gain confessions without the knowledge of defense attorneys and in violation of inmates’ constitutional rights.

Many insights into the use of informants has come from two sources, an electronic database on inmate movements known as TRED and the Special Handling log. The log is a trove of deputies’ notes on their daily work, including their work with informants.

Although the defense subpoenaed those records in January 2013, it wasn’t until late 2014 that the TRED system was disclosed and in 2016 that the 1,157 page Special Handling log – most of which remains under seal – was turned over to the court. Why it took so long for those documents to be disclosed, and whether there was an effort to hide them, is at the center of this court hearing.

Two Sheriff’s deputies – who have invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination — were admonished by Goethals for their testimony in previous hearings, where they avoided mentioning the TRED system when asked about them. Goethals said the deputies, Seth Tunstall and Ben Garcia, “either intentionally lied or willfully withheld material evidence from this court.”

Irons testified that when a subpoena was received, Sheriff’s Department officials might exclude certain jail files on the basis that those documents are privileged under the penal code. Those documents were not turned over to County Counsel or the court.

That changed in 2014, Irons said.

“At some point…that penal code wasn’t going to keep them out anymore. And so the change of direction was county counsel needed to have everything and they would discuss in court what was actually going to be disclosed or not,” said Irons.

The Sheriff’s Department has stated publicly that TRED records were never a secret and have always been discoverable in court.

While county counsel always objects to the release of TRED files on security and confidentiality grounds, “they’ve been discovered on numerous occasions,” former Sheriff’s spokesman Jeff Hallock told the ABA Journal in 2016.

Irons was also the first member of the Sheriff’s command staff to say that she had reviewed the special handling log while a supervisor at the jail.

Both the lieutenant who started the Special Handling Log and the Sergeant who ended it have testified they never read the log until much later.

Although a version of the special handling log was ended in 2013, Irons said she started it again in 2014, unaware that one had existed before.

There was no mention Wednesday of an Orange County Grand Jury report released Tuesday which called the notion of a jailhouse snitch program in Orange County a “myth” exaggerated by the media.

The report said while there is legal use of informants in the jails, there’s no systemic misuse of informants and any misconduct is largely confined to “a few rogue deputies” without the approval of officials up the chain of command.

Irons testified informant operations were common when she was a lieutenant and she decided to formalize the process in 2012 for outside agencies to request an operation.

Before the process was formalized, Irons said the captain of the facility was involved in approving most informant operations.

“I personally did not approve an operation in the jail without running it up the chain of command,” Irons said.

In response to questions from Goethals, Irons said she never received any specific legal training about court cases that govern the use of informants in jails and protect defendants’ rights, such as Massiah vs. United States, Brady vs Maryland, and Illinois vs. Perkins.

Meanwhile, the families of Dekraai’s victims have continued to attend the court hearings.

The outcome of the hearing could affect whether Goethals decides to throw out the death penalty or sentence Dekraai to eight consecutive terms of life in prison.

The family of Michelle Daschbach Fast, 47, said they were opposed to the death penalty and were critical of how the case has been handled so far.

“Never did we imagine that the blunders that tainted this case would be created by the prosecution team themselves, on a case that was supposed to be a slam dunk,” said Laura Daschbach, Michelle’s sister, reading from a letter from the family.

“A life of appeals for everyone involved is the antithesis of justice,” she added.

The family of another victim, Lucia Kondas, 65, wrote in a letter to the court that they supported the death penalty for Dekraai.

“I do not believe a self-confessed mass murder’s [sic] rights should outweigh the rights of the victims and their families,” wrote Mary Bianchi, Kondas’ sister.

The hearing continues Thursday.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

  • verifiedsane
  • Paul Lucas

    Someone please throw these people in jail.

  • LFOldTimer

    “Irons testified informant operations were common when she was a lieutenant and she decided to formalize the process in 2012 for outside agencies to request an operation.

    Before the process was formalized, Irons said the captain of the facility was involved in approving most informant operations.

    “I personally did not approve an operation in the jail without running it up the chain of command,” Irons said.”

    BOTTOM LINE: The Orange County Grand Jury report was a FAKE REPORT!!! What did Ms. Carmody spend our $400,000 in county tax dollars on for the last year for God’s sake??? Certainly not on an unbiased or impartial investigation. We have INSIDERS who TESTIFY under SWORN OATH that the jail informant program was WIDESPREAD!!! And now Lieutenant Irons TESTIFIES that a CAPTAIN approved most of the informant operations!!!! So if a CAPTAIN knew about it – who’s kidding whom? THIS WENT ALL THE WAY TO THE DAMN TOP!!!!

    WE NEED AN IMMEDIATE SOUP TO NUTS INVESTIGATION OF THE ORANGE COUNTY GRAND JURY!!!

    WHO IS THE OCGJ TRYING TO PROTECT??? WHO ARE THEY SERVIING??? THE RESIDENTS AND TAXPAYERS OF OC AND OUR JUSTICE SYSTEM OR THEIR FRIENDS IN COUNTY GOVERNMENT AND THE OCSD???

    This is absolutely repugnant. Who are we, the citizens, supposed to turn to for justice??? All the authorities who are sworn under oath to uphold the laws and defend the US Constitution appear to be as crooked as a witches nose.

    IS THERE ANYBODY BESIDES JUDGE GOETHALS AND SCOTT SANDERS WHO WE CAN TRUST IN THE HIGHEST ECHELONS OF COUNTY GOVERNMENT???

    • verifiedsane

      simple answer: NO ONE

  • OCservant_Leader

    The OC Sheriff Department along with their advisers – the OC County Council, deliberately…with malicious intent violated the Subpeana and lied under oath. Isn’t this a crime?

    *IF* the OC Officials desired to claim privledge on the information requested by the Superior Court Judge— they have to actually state the REASON for withholding.

    They can’t just “hide” the exsistance of such records…and keep lying!

    You don’t need to be a lawyer to know this. Anyone can read the Penal Code.

    So within 24 hours – Sheriff Iron’s testimony totally debunked the OC Grand Jury’s report as a pack of lies.

    They need to amend the title and take out the PR term – “Myth” – now that the “Informant” program has been proven to be truth…in Court.

    The OC Criminal Family has been trying to get rid of the OC Grand Jury for years…looks like they will finally succeed! Well played OC Family!

    • LFOldTimer

      Of course LYING UNDER SWORN OATH is a crime.

      Of course DEFYING A JUDGE’S ORDERS TO TURN OVER MATERIAL EVIDENCE PURSUANT TO A CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION is a crime.

      But now it’s obvious to me that the law is UNEQUAL and applies only to those who do not have connections in high places or do not wear badges and carry guns.

      We’re no better than a THIRD WORLD BANANA REPUBLIC. Even the Grand Jury is dirty.

      The REAL MYTHS were the conclusions drawn by the OC Grand Jury.

      The Grand Jury used to do their job. Now it OBVIOUS to me it’s nothing more than just another County Lapdog Agency.

      • OCservant_Leader

        Yea – 4 years after the records were subpoenaed – the Sheriff’s (DA, BOS, & County Council) explanation for all the obstruction of justice efforts to hide, lie and lie some more they state..

        “Oh the real reason we lied was because we *thought* they were privledged records and so we pretend they don’t exsist”??

        Really?

        They all know the rules of Court. Judge Goethals – you now have your absurd answer from the OC Family. These public officials need to be charged with crimes and stripped of their pensions! The Sheriff, DA and CoCo head’s need to roll first. Then the BOS and CEO.

        OT – see how they USED the Grand Jury to pump out a LIE and will now use this as the reason to abolish the body. This is slash and burn PR 101- OC style.

        • LFOldTimer

          I guess the cops think that upon receipt of a subpoena issued by the courts that they can either ignore it or lie under oath to make it go away. If ordinary citizens tried those tricks the judge would drop kick them from his courtroom into the slammer.

          If they thought the subpoena targeted privileged information that would be inappropriate for even a judge to examine they could try to quash it through the legal system – but I’m not aware they even made the first attempt to do so. Instead they tried to bury it with indifference and lies.

          Who told the cops that informant records pertinent to criminal cases are exempted from examination by the courts? A 4 year old? There they go again – PLAYING STUPID! OCSD must have the world’s dumbest cops. Even Barney FIfe knows better.

          This is nothing more than OPEN DEFIANCE by the ones sworn under oath to uphold the laws in the face of justice. Heads should roll. None of these clowns were told they were immune from statutory law when they took their positions of public trust. And all of them should be held accountable, just like any other ordinary citizen would have his feet held to the fire for the same behaviors.

          As as far as the Grand Jury goes – I put the blame on the foreperson for running such a shoddy investigation. Based on the actual evidence, to include the sworn testimony, the OCGJ report was nothing more than a big circle the wagons cover-up scam for the County of Orange.

          I hope one of the grand jurors comes forward and lets the cat out of the bag by exposing what really went on behind the orange curtain.

          No one should be able to force a grand jury to “pump out a lie”. A grand jury of any integrity would immediately report such mischief and demand that undue outside influence cease.

          I want more information on the 2 lead investigators that were hired with the $400,000 in county taxpayer money. They must have graduated from the Barney Fife School of Investigations. The gaping holes in their reports are incredible. Pinkerton Security guards could’ve conducted a more believable investigation.

          • OCservant_Leader

            Lassie could of done a better job of investigating!

            I agree – we now need to investigate the tainted Grand Jury!

            I wonder WHO came up with the slick twist to call a truth revealed in Court & upheld by an Appellate Court a “Myth”? That’s a LIE!

            Someone has to be accountable – yea lets interview all the grand jurors. They got all the facts – wrong & suggested the Court STOP the hearings? Really?

  • kburgoyne

    Wow. Somebody thinks they don’t have to provide documents when ordered to do so by a judge?

    I rather think the only argument to support that would be claiming the court lacks jurisdiction — in other words stating that some OTHER court has jurisdiction which can then be asked to issue the order. Yet no such counter-argument was made.

    Otherwise the order could be appealed to a higher court. Something which also was not done.

    Simply deciding to not turn over the documents and not bothering to use the legal system to justify that position sounds like somebody should go to jail for a bit so they have the opportunity to become a snitch.

    Whether or not the documents should subsequently be turned over to prosecutors, defendants, etc, is something to be argued with the judge. The department should have turned over the documents directly to the judge combined with their arguments for why the judge should not turn the documents over to anyone else. It then becomes the judge’s responsibility for whether the legal issues were being adhered to not. If the department strongly didn’t believe the judge was following the law, then the department should have made that argument to a higher court.

    The courts are the last backstop for “rule of law”. Deciding to ignore the courts is nothing less than deciding to ignore the rule of law.

  • verifiedsane

    The level of corruption, criminality, and dishonesty being propagated upon the citizenry/public by the DA, Sheriff, BoS, and Grand Jury is beyond disturbing….this has gone from shameful maleficence, to an absolute circus in total absurdity….we are truly sitting at ring side seats bearing witness to this spectacle of government corruption & criminality at it’s very worst…

  • RyanCantor

    “Irons testified informant operations were common when she was a lieutenant and she decided to formalize the process in 2012 for outside agencies to request an operation.

    Before the process was formalized, Irons said the captain of the facility was involved in approving most informant operations.

    ‘I personally did not approve an operation in the jail without running it up the chain of command,’ Irons said.”

    Right. Right. It was just a few low level over zealous crime fighters.

    Right.

    Sure.