The Orange County criminal justice system is awash in scandal.
A committee of legal experts established by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has called the office “a ship without a rudder” staffed by too many prosecutors who believe in winning at all costs.
Nearly a year ago, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals issued an extraordinary order removing the entire district attorney’s office from the prosecution of Scott Dekraai, who admitted to shooting eight people to death in a Seal Beach salon in 2011.
Revelations in that case and others have since made it clear that the County Sheriff’s Department has been systematically placing criminal defendants in cells with or near jailhouse informants. Those informants then elicited incriminating information in violation of the defendants’ rights.
Sheriff’s deputies later lied about the existence of records related to the informants’ reliability while testifying in court. Prosecutors have been hiding critical evidence of the illegal program and other exculpatory evidence from defendants and their attorneys in violation of the U.S. Constitution for at least 25 years.
Long concealed documents recently surfaced, revealing that deputy district attorneys were actually instructed by their superiors not to disclose to defense attorneys evidence that an informant was provided compensation.
Yet, despite evidence on the record, Rackauckas and Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens continue to deny the existence of the informant program in the jails or the intentional unlawful withholding of evidence by prosecutors.
At an Orange County Register forum this week, both claimed that any constitutional violations were “negligent.”
They would have us believe that the solution is more training and to move forward.
This is not enough.
We cannot allow Rackauckas and Hutchens to sweep 30 years of lying and deception under the rug.
Without understanding the full scope of the problem, it is impossible to craft a solution.
That is why today the ACLU of Southern California sent Public Records Act requests to Rackauckas’ and Hutchens’ offices.
To read both public records requests, click here.
We are asking them to release vital information to help shed light on the extent to which the justice system has been undermined over the last three decades. Only then can we begin to look for solutions to prevent such miscarriages of justice from recurring.
Both the district attorney and the sheriff’s offices have a long way to go to restore the public’s confidence.
They must begin by admitting that a problem exists.
They must then open up their records so the public can know how many people were denied a fair trial over the past three decades, how many Sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors lied or withheld evidence, and what policies and structures allowed such abuse to occur.
Now is the time for them to show they are committed to the rule of law and the fair administration of justice.
The district attorney and sheriff must commit themselves to increased transparency and oversight. They must release these records so that this process can begin. No less is at stake than the public’s faith in the integrity of the criminal justice system.
Caitlin Sanderson and Brendan Hamme are staff attorneys in the ACLU of Southern California’s Orange County office.