Among the biggest bombshells in Orange County’s long-running jailhouse informant scandal -- in which a judge barred District Attorney Tony Rackauckas from prosecuting mass-murderer Scott Evans Dekraai -- was the disclosure of a secret system revealing informant locations in county jails.
Known as "TRED," the system that showed how Orange County sheriff’s deputies put informants near target inmates was so secret that the judge, Thomas M. Goethals, had no knowledge of it -- despite his previous many years as a deputy district attorney and defense attorney. Dekraai’s prosecutors also denied knowledge of the computerized records used by deputies who staff jails.
But now, recently unsealed Superior Court records from a 1998 murder trial shows that the County Counsel’s office knew by at least 2005 about the TRED records and have fought to keep them sealed.
The defendant’s attorney argues this prevented him from fully questioning a jail informant who provided key “inflammatory” testimony that put the accused in prison for life.
This indicates the County Counsel’s office -- headed for years by Nicholas S. Chrisos -- has sought to limit the disclosure of such evidence records to defense attorneys, who say they are vital for fair trial.
A 2005 transcript of a closed hearing before Judge Frank F. Fasel on the admissibility of that evidence shows the TRED records could have substantially undermined the informant’s credibility and the prosecution’s entire case.
During that closed hearing in Fasel’s chambers, a deputy county counsel, Laura Knapp, argued records being sought by Rodriguez’s attorney were “highly confidential investigatory files” ... “that effectively are a stream of consciousness” by deputies to keep jails safe. The transcript identified some records as “tread,” a sometime name for the TRED system.
But defense attorney James M. Crawford of Orange -- who represented Henry Rodriguez, 38, in the jury trial a decade ago, and still does today -- said he didn’t know the significance of the withheld TRED records until the transcript was unsealed on June 26 at a hearing where he was seeking to have his client’s conviction overturned.
Crawford claimed during Rodriguez’s 2006 trial for murdering the pregnant Jeanette Gomez Espeleta, 20, of Fullerton, the prosecution violated his client’s right to a fair trial by denying the informant was a veteran snitch; and by failing to ensure that records -- like those from TRED -- were turned over to the defense, as is required by established case law.
And the actual TRED records that prosecutors provided to Crawford earlier this year show the informant -- Michael James Garrity, 58, of Riverside -- allegedly provided false testimony at the 2006 trial, the defense attorney added.
“It couldn’t be any worse,” Crawford said.
A county spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment for the county counsel.
Cameron J. Talley, the deputy district attorney who in 2006 prosecuted Rodriguez, couldn’t be reached for comment.
A Sheriff’s Department spokesman said the case “validates TRED wasn’t a secret.” But he acknowledged this was in conflict with assertions by a number of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys that TRED indeed was secret.
During a year of hearings in the case against Dekraai,
his lead county public defender, Scott Sanders, uncovered how Rackauckas' office and the Sheriff’s Department withheld material evidence from the defendant -- who last year pleaded guilty to the 2011 slaughter of his wife and seven others in a Seal Beach beauty salon.
Sanders also disclosed how evidence allegedly was withheld from at least 18 other defendants convicted of major crimes; since, four of them had their sentences vacated or reduced based on the disclosures.
Last August, after months of hearings on the jail deputies informant system, Sanders learned via subpoena the existence of TRED records -- which showed how informants were moved near Dekraai and other jailed defendants to gain information in violation of their rights. [Authorities cannot use informants to elicit information from defendants represented by counsel without violating their rights.]
This helped contradict sheriff’s deputies testimony during the hearing, leading Goethals -- also now the judge in the Rodriguez case -- to in March recuse Rackauckas’ entire office, and accuse some deputies of perjury regarding TRED.
The state Attorney General’s Office is to take over the penalty prosecution of Dekraai, but that move also is being appealed on behalf of Rackauckas, who wants the death penalty. Meanwhile, the AG is investigating events arising from the Dekraai case.
As knowledge of the TRED system spread in the defense bar, attorneys have been mounting challenges to questionable prosecutions, like Rodriguez’s.
In the case, Crawford has argued that Rodriguez did not know the murder would occur, and only afterwards helped the killer dispose of Espeleta’s body by dropping it in the ocean off Long Beach. The body of the woman, a bank teller in Santa Ana, was never recovered.
In a previous associated trial, Richard Tovar, 38, of Anaheim, was convicted of two counts of murder for Espeleta’s killing; he now is serving life in prison. He reportedly killed her because she was pregnant and he would have to pay child support.
Prior to the 2006 trial, Rodriguez had been convicted of the double murder, but an appellate court threw out that conviction on the grounds that police violated of his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination.
That set the stage for the new trial where Crawford sought to gather details about Garrity’s role in county jail in 1999 with Rodriguez.
Prosecutors did not use Garrity’s testimony in the first trial, said Crawford, who didn’t represent Rodriguez then.
But Garrity was called in 2006 to testify for the prosecution, contending Rodriguez told him Espeleta was “shark bait.”
“I think they called him then because they didn’t have anything else,” said Crawford.
In 2005 as he sought to secure information on Garrity, Crawford said there were suggestions about additional informant work by Garrity, but he was unable to get more information.
During Fasel’s closed hearing, Sgt. James Fouste of the sheriff’s department brought TRED and other records potentially covered by Crawford subpoenas to the judge’s chambers for review and a decision on their admissibility.
At the end of the hearing, the transcript says Fasel ordered that copies of certain records -- like TRED documents -- be made and then filed under seal with the court a week later.
The sealed documents, the transcript states, “are not to be opened pending notice to the county counsel and pending further order of the court.”
As he never heard again about the records he sought in 2005, Crawford said, he assumed the judge rejected his request.
Last March when he finally received the TRED records from the district attorney’s office, Crawford said he found they showed Garrity had previously served as an informant in several cases, and sought sentencing leniency from law enforcement for assistance.
In one other case, records showed Garrity asserted he had secured a damaging statement from another defendant, but Crawford wrote the other defendant only spoke Spanish, and Garrity only spoke English. That other defendant later denied knowing Garrity.
Such information would have been vital for Rodriguez’s 2006 defense, Crawford noted.
At the June 26 hearing, Crawford noted county counsel didn’t want the 2005 transcript released, but Goethals rejected that.
On July 2, Crawford filed a writ seeking to overturn Rodriquez’s conviction because of Garrity’s testimony and numerous rights violations.
The next hearing before Goethals is July 17.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of Henry Rodriguez. We regret the error.
Please contact Rex Dalton directly at email@example.com