A Santa Ana man once in prison for life without parole for murder will be free in about four years under a plea bargain Thursday after the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and police violated his constitutional rights.
The plea deal for Leonel Santiago Vega comes after his 2011 sentence was vacated last June following revelations of prosecutorial misconduct. The disclosures came during an unprecedented evidentiary hearing in the trial of mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai regarding an informant network in jails operated by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
During the Dekraai hearing, testimony showed that at Vega’s 2010 murder trial, hundreds of pages of informant notes were withheld from his defense attorney, along with secret tapes and a leniency deal granted to an informant who testifying against him. The withholding of the evidence amounted to a violation of Vega's Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
Under the agreement before Orange County Superior Court Judge Daniel B. McNerney, the 35-year-old Vega pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the 2004 gang-related shooting death of 17-year-old Giovani Onofre, in Memorial Park in Santa Ana.
While the plea bargain calls for a sentence of 15 years, court records show that with Vega’s time served since being charged in 2007, and good behavior, he is likely to be released in about four years from state prison.
As part of the pact, Vega acknowledged “he willfully, unlawfully and intentionally killed Onofre....without malice but with conscious disregard for life” with a firearm.
The vacation of Vega's conviction and sentence was the first of three instances in which charges were dropped after the revelations of prosecutorial and police misconduct in the case against Dekraai, who admitted to the 2011 massacre of eight people, including his wife, in a Seal Beach beauty salon.
Scott Sanders, Dekraai's lead public defender, showed how information from the secret informant network in county Jails was withheld from at least other 18 defendants, most of whom faced murder charges.
Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Goethals ruled last August that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ team had engaged in misconduct in the Dekraai prosecution, and sanctioned them by blocking the use of informant testimony and secret jail tape recordings in the coming penalty phase of the trial.
However, Goethals denied Sanders' request to take the death penalty off the table for Dekraai and have the DA's office recused from the case. But since that ruling Sanders has uncovered new evidence that has persuaded Goethals to reopen the evidentiary hearing.
On Thursday, Goethals began taking testimony in that hearing -- which the judge noted could lead to new sanctions against the DA or elimination of the death penalty. An Orange County deputy sheriff testified about how a computerized for tracking inmates -- and in some cases informants -- was considered confidential and not be to disclosed in court proceedings.
Sanders found records for the tracking system -- called TRED -- that showed how an informant was involved in securing information and tape recordings from Dekraai. It was that information and tapes for which the prosecution was sanctioned by Geothals.
Sanders is calling to the stand sheriff’s deputies that worked the jail for questions that may show false testimony was given during the hearing’s earlier sessions.
In the Vega case, his attorney, Todd L. Melnik of Woodland Hills, said, “I think Judge [McNerney] put it best when he said this case was a black eye for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office” and law enforcement.
A DA spokeswoman declined comment, citing the agency’s policy of not speaking to the Voice of OC because of past news coverage.
But in the DA’s press release Thursday, the agency said an internal investigation that arose during the Dekraai case showed a Santa Ana police detective “had prompted” a county jail informant “to elicit information from Vega” that was in violation of his constitutional right to counsel.
The press release claimed the District Attorney’s Office wasn’t informed of those events at the time.
But attorneys note that under precedential court cases the prosecution is responsible for any withheld evidence, irrespective of whether it is done by prosecutors or police.
Santa Ana Police spokesman Anthony Bertagna said his agency was made aware early last year of “errors by one of our detectives,” which led to meetings with prosecutors.
Ultimately, Bertagna said, the department updated policies and training was increased on use of informants.
The detective in question, Chuck Flynn, who was an Army special forces reservist who served in recent wars, has retired from the department, Bertagna said.
During the Dekraai hearing, testimony and tape recordings showed that Flynn also offered to help the informant who testified against Vega -- Oscar “Scar” Moriel -- to join the military once his sentence was resolved.
A previous version of this article misstated the name of the judge who heard Vega's plea. We regret the error.
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