Legal Heavyweights Call for Federal Probe of Orange County DA

A coalition of national legal authorities is calling for a federal investigation of the Orange County District Attorney and Sheriff’s Department for alleged systemic violations of defendants’ rights involving jail informants.

In a letter sent Tuesday to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, six legal organizations, three dozen former prosecutors from across the nation, and U.S. Constitutional law authorities called the ongoing informants scandal “a crisis.”

“The constitutional rights of defendants appear to have been violated for decades in Orange County,” states the letter, which was signed by a who’s who of the legal establishment led by Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, and John Van de Kamp — a former U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, California Attorney General and Los Angeles District Attorney.

(Click here to read the letter in its entirety.)

Chemerinsky, who is a Voice of OC board member, publicly has called for a federal inquiry before. Now, along with Van de Kamp, he is joined by: The American Civili Liberties Union; California Attorneys for Criminal Justice; the National Association of Public Defense; the Constitution Project; Harvard’s Charles Ogletree; former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti; and Elisabeth A. Semel of UC Berkeley School of Law.

“Now, it’s critical that a credible, neutral party conduct a thorough investigation of the actions of both the Sheriff’s Department and the OCDA,” the 16-page letter goes on to say.

“Otherwise, we will never know how many citizens’ constitutional rights were violated, and the public will not be able to have full confidence in our criminal justice system.”

Rackauckas’ office didn’t respond to a request for comment today on the call for a federal inquiry.

A spokesman for Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said the department is reviewing the letter and would cooperate with such a probe, as it is with other inquiries.

The alleged rights violations were first revealed in February 2014 during the murder case of Scott Evans Dekraai, who has pleaded to the 2011 murder of his ex-wife and seven others in a Seal Beach beauty salon.

Dekraai’s county public defenders, led by Scott Sanders, uncovered widespread evidence of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ team, along with sheriff’s deputies, withholding evidence gleaned from jailhouse informants, thereby violating the constitutional rights of Dekraai and potentially many other defendants.

In the wake of these disclosures, more than a half-dozen inmates jailed or facing long terms had their sentences reduced or eliminated.

After a months-long evidentiary hearing centered on Sanders’ revelations, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals in March issued an order recusing Rackauckas’ entire office from the Dekraai case due to prosecutorial misconduct.

Goethals found that both a deputy district attorney and sheriff’s deputies provided false testimony during the hearing, and that Rackauckas’ office couldn’t be relied upon to balance defendant rights with its prosecutorial duties.

Sanders unsuccessfully sought to have Goethals dismiss the death penalty for Dekraai because of the prosecution’s conduct, with the defendant accepting life without possibility of parole. Dekraai now faces a penalty phase trial.

After Goethals’ ruling, California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office said it opened an investigation into the disclosures arising from the Dekraai case. A spokeswoman for the agency said its probe focusing on any criminal violations is continuing.

Despite the growing number of questioned cases, both Rackauckas and Hutchens have publicly maintained that there are no major problems — only a lack of training for prosecutors and deputies.

However, once Goethals ruled, Rackauckas’ office did agree to have a panel review his agency’s practices, saying it would look to improve and strengthen future practices. That group of attorneys reportedly is expected to produce its report soon.

The signers of the letter demanding a federal probe said Rackauckas and Hutchens have not gone nearly far enough in acknowledging the misconduct.

Rackauckas has sought to “publicly minimize the seriousness of the situation,” the letter says, while refusing “to so much as consider the potential to countless accused who may have been deprived of critical evidence.”

The “staunch refusal” of the district attorney and sheriff “to acknowledge the possibility that members of their respective agencies have intentionally deprived defendants of evidence,” or that scores of other defendants may have been denied due process, “would appear to be driven more by concerns about self-preservation than impartial analysis,” the letter says.

Letter signers concluded by writing: “It is our firm belief that U.S. Department of Justice is the only entity equipped to conduct this investigation, and restore public confidence in the justice system of Orange County.”

Please contact Rex Dalton directly at rexdalton@aol.com