An Orange County Superior Court judge has overturned a man’s conviction for a 2006 murder in Santa Ana, ruling that the prosecution team violated the man’s constitutional rights in using a jailhouse informant to win a purported confession.
The decision Wednesday by Judge Richard M. King to reverse last year’s conviction of Eric Vasquez Ortiz, 26, of Santa Ana, for the cold-case murder is the latest fallout from the informant scandal that has rocked the office of Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and the Sheriff’s Department over the last year.
Ortiz’s case is marked by the apparently unprecedented circumstance in which four sheriff’s deputies exercised their Fifth Amendment rights to decline to testify at an evidentiary hearing for fear of criminally incriminating themselves.
Ortiz was convicted in January 2014 after a three-week trial of murder and attempted murder while using a firearm to benefit a gang. But Ortiz’s sentencing was delayed given the legal challenges.
Ortiz’s attorney, Rudolph Lowenstein of Tustin, said his client was “grateful, extremely grateful” for a chance at a new trial, after maintaining his innocence.
Lowenstein went on to say that the reversal of Ortiz’s conviction shows that neither Rackauckas’ office nor the Sheriff’s Department can be trusted when it comes to evidentiary issues.
“I think they have lost their moral compass,” said Lowenstein. “You can’t violate the law in an attempt to win at all cost.”
King granted Lowenstein’s request for the evidentiary hearing in the wake of disclosures of prosecutorial misconduct in the case of Scott Evans Dekraai, who in 2011 gunned down his ex-wife and seven other people in a Seal Beach beauty salon.
Ortiz’s prosecutor was Erik S. Petersen, who resigned from the District Attorney’s Office in September. The four sheriff’s deputies who took the Fifth Amendment were key witnesses in the Dekraai case.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals — who in March recused Rackauckas’ entire office from prosecuting the penalty phase of the Dekraai trial — named both Petersen and deputies Seth Tunstall Ben Garcia as not giving truthful testimony in the Dekraai case.
The hearing in Ortiz’s case centered on his alleged confession to a jailhouse informant. The confession had been obtained under unusual circumstances, shortly after another witness refused to testify in the case.
Lowenstein argued that sheriff’s deputies violated Ortiz’s right to counsel by deploying an informant who allegedly obtained the confession, and then failing to properly disclose associated informant evidence to the defense for trial.
Concerns regarding testimony of the informant — Donald Geary — were such, Lowenstein said, that King also ruled the purported confession can’t be used in a retrial of Ortiz.
After the evidentiary hearing, King issued his 17-page ruling that overturned Ortiz’s conviction. A new trial was set for Jan. 5.
(Click Here to read the judge’s ruling)
“Based on the totality of the evidence, had the newly discovered evidence been known to the defense before trial, the defendant’s confession would have been excluded,” wrote King. “Had the jury not heard defendant’s confession to [the informant], it is probable the result of the trial would have been more favorable to the defendant.”
[Ortiz’s was the first such hearing in the aftermath of the revelations in the Dekraai case. However, the sentences of more than a half dozen convicted individuals have been reduced or eliminated following the Dekraai disclosures.]
Rackauckas’ press office declined to comment, while Sheriff Sandra Hutchens issued a prepared statement.
“It obviously troubles me to think of a murder conviction being jeopardized and the potential difficulties faced by the victim’s family enduring a new trial,” the statement read. “The issue raises a number of questions and the department continues to pursue answers across a number of different investigations and reviews.”
In making his ruling, King wrote of the importance of the failure of the sheriff’s deputies to testify in the evidentiary hearing.
Using bold face type for this part of his ruling, King wrote:
“The issue is simple. Sworn police officers were called to the witness stand to answer questions about what they were doing while working as police officers. When all of them refused to testify, the defendant” couldn’t exercise his right to question them.
Therefore, King said he was “compelled” to find there was a rights violation.
In her statement, Hutchens stated: “This is a unique situation where the job duties of these deputies are in direct conflict with their constitutional rights. We continue to navigate these challenges, as we have placed the deputies in assignments that limit their need to make arrests or otherwise act as witnesses.”
The state Attorney General’s Office is conducting a criminal investigation into questioned testimony of deputies and a prosecutor in the Dekraai case.
In her statement, Hutchens said she hopes the state will clear the deputies by the time of the new trial so they can testify.
However, Petersen did testify in the Ortiz evidentiary hearing.
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