The Orange County District Attorney’s Office is seeking nearly $630,000 for paralegals following revelations of systemic problems with prosecutors failing to properly disclose evidence to criminal defendants.
The last-minute request for 10 limited-term paralegals was revealed last week during the county Board of Supervisor’s initial 2014-15 budget discussions. Supervisors unanimously gave tentative approval for the hiring, with a final decision coming later this month.
The added paralegals, who assist deputy district attorneys, are needed because of issues with required disclosures of evidence to defendants’ attorneys preparing for trials, officials say.
In recent months, county public defenders have alleged constitutional rights violations by the District Attorney’s Office and law enforcement officers. The allegations were part of an unprecedented hearing in the Superior Court trial of Scott Evans Dekraai, who in May pleaded guilty to killing eight people, including his wife, during a 2011 rampage in a Seal Beach hair salon.
A network of jailhouse informants were deployed to gather evidence, thus allegedly violating the rights of Dekraai and others to fair trials. During the hearing, prosecutors acknowledged failing to disclose evidence to an increasing number of defendants.
Funds for the paralegals are the first of what may be considerably higher other costs if defendants convicted of major crimes have to be retried because of prosecutorial evidentiary shortcomings alleged during the hearing.
And these taxpayer costs are coming at a time when the Orange County court system — like others statewide — has been heavily affected by Sacramento budget cuts.
In a June 4 memo to supervisors, County CEO Michael B. Giancola wrote the paralegals were sought “to address workload increases in order to meet legal mandates.”
At the June 10 board meeting, Supervisor Todd Spitzer said he had spoken with District Attorney Tony Rackaukas and understood the paralegals were for “discovery, Brady compliance.” That compliance stems from a landmark legal case [Brady v. Maryland in 1963], requiring prosecutors to disclose materially helpful evidence to defendants.
Susan Kang Schroeder, Rackaukas’ chief of staff, said the paralegal request was “in part because of issues” from the Dekraai case; but that the office had wanted additional staff for some time, as the agency has been “pressed…to do more with less” in recent years.
In February, public defenders for Dekraai first accused prosecutors of violating his rights by failing to provide discovery evidence — arguing it was part of a wider pattern of such offenses.
Dekraai’s attorneys detailed those allegations in a 505-page motion, which sought to block the death penalty and recuse the District Attorney’s Office from further prosecution in the case. The state Attorney General’s Office then would take over Dekraai’s prosecution.
Since March, Dekraai’s public defenders have called prosecutors, Orange County sheriff’s deputies, Santa Ana police and others to testify about their practices using informants and subsequent disclosure to defendants. In several instances, law enforcement officers have engaged criminal defense attorneys, who represented them as they were queried by Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s lead public defender.
Repeatedly, prosecutors acknowledged evidence, including reports, interview notes and/or tape recordings, wasn’t disclosed. Such acknowledgements have come from Dan Wagner, an assistant district attorney who heads the homicide division, and is a co-prosecutor of Dekraai. He had other prosecutors have denied intentionally violating defendants’ rights.
Wagner and other prosecutors have testified they didn’t fully understand legal precedents [such as the Brady case], didn’t recall knowing of evidence, and/or couldn’t recall if they knew they had a duty to turn over evidence at the time of prior trials.
As the evidentiary hearing before Judge Thomas M. Goethals in Santa Ana on the public defenders motion has continued on for weeks longer than expected, prosecutors have also acknowledged making evidence disclosures in a widening number of cases of previously convicted individuals.
In late April, prosecutors conceded they would not use about 150 hours of tape recordings of an informant’s talks with Dekraai, because they were obtained potentially in violation of his right to counsel. Prosecutors previously planned to use information from the tapes in the death penalty phase of Dekraai’s case, which is expected later this year.
However, there would be no death penalty if Goethals concurs with the public defender’s request for life without possibility of parole as a remedy for prosecutorial misconduct.
The evidentiary hearing in the Dekraai case also has led to strains in other prosecutions in Superior Court.
For instance, on June 10 the state Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana ordered a continuance in the penalty phase trial of a capital murder case so the defendant’s public defenders could examine the role of a experienced jailhouse informant.
The case involves Richard Raymond Ramirez, who was convicted last year of the 1983 rape and murder of a Garden Grove woman. [Ramirez’s earlier conviction of the murder had been overturned on appeal. In prior testimony, Ramirez has acknowledged killing the woman, but his attorneys maintain he has been a model prisoner for 30 years.]
Initially in May, Superior Court Judge William R. Froeberg declined to grant a trial continuance to Ramirez’s public defenders — objecting to the type of hearing inquiry underway in the Dekraai case by saying: “This dog and pony show isn’t going to happen in this courtroom.”
Ramirez’s public defenders then took an immediate writ to the appeals court — alleging in records that law enforcement officers were involved in “illegal and deplorable” efforts during the last year to get the informant to find material to use against Ramirez in a penalty trial this spring.
The appellate panel agreed to put the penalty trial on hold, setting the stage for Ramirez’s attorneys and prosecutors to argue about an inquiry before Froeberg on June 20.
In an interview, Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin, who is prosecuting Ramirez, said: “There is no informant; it is a public defender fantasy.”
Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at [email protected]