Rackauckas and Sanders Face Off in Forum

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and public defender Scott Sanders, two central figures in the county’s ongoing jailhouse informant scandal, faced off for the first time publicly Monday night in a forum hosted by the Orange County Register.

In a scene reminiscent of a cable television program scrum, Rackauckas and Sanders battled each other over the extraordinary revelations by Sanders regarding how DA prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies operated an informant network inside county jails. [It can be viewed at ocregister.com/live.]

The exchange reflected virtual polar opposite views, a panelist noted, of events that culminated nearly a year ago with Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals barring Rackauckas’ team from continuing to prosecute mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai. Dekraai killed his ex-wife and seven others in 2011 in a Seal Beach beauty salon. The judge’s order is under appeal.

Two years ago, Sanders asserted multiple violations involving informants in a 505-plus page motion filed in the Dekraai case. After a lengthy evidentiary hearing, Goethals found abuse of informants, and determined a former deputy district attorney and two sheriff’s deputies provided false and/or misleading testimony about evidence.

In addition to the ruling by Goethals, Sanders’ discoveries have led to a state attorney general’s investigation, calls by leading legal authorities for a federal investigation, and a damning report by a panel of legal experts handpicked by Rackauckas.

Also, since the ruling multiple defendants, including convicted murderers, have had their convictions thrown out on grounds that their constitutional rights were violated by prosecutors’ use of informants.

Despite all of this, Rackauckas and Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who was also a panelist Monday, have maintained there was no hidden network of jail informants violating inmate rights, any prosecution miscues were minor, unintentional mistakes, and that increased training was remedying any issues.

Register journalists conducted the forum, which attracted more than 200 people, with Donna Wares, the newspaper’s managing editor, acting as moderator.

Near the middle of the two-hour program, Rackauckas interrupted Sanders — the first break in session decorum — when he was describing wayward prosecutorial actions in responding to a Wares query.

This set off a testy interlude between the two attorneys, with Sanders challenging Rackauckas’ knowledge of the case.

Sanders aggressively questioned Rackauckas about whether he had read the transcript of the evidentiary hearing.

Ultimately, Rackauckas acknowledged he had “read some of it.”

As remarks became more vociferous, Wares interceded, saying the intent of the Register was to have “a conversation,” but “not a brawl.”

When she said she wished to change the topic, the audience emitted a moderate chorus of boos.

The audience was made up of both citizens, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the father of a victim in a 2010 double murder by Daniel Patrick Wozniak. Sanders also defends Wozniak and has made similar allegations in that case.

During the conversation, Hutchens and assistant DA, Ebrahim Baytieh, backed up Rackauckas’ contention that while mistakes were made, the county’s justice system isn’t broken.

Hutchens said she believed “Judge Goethals went a little too far” in his recusal ruling in the Dekraai case. She argued for patience, as the state Attorney General’s Office conducts its criminal inquiry into the questioned testimony.

The prosecution team also contended it was time to “move on” from continued public scrutiny of any past offenses.

But Sanders argued strongly that “we are not advancing” with such a course, that the region’s justice system is not “safe,” arguing the public should become more involved if it wants fair trials.

Rex Dalton can be reached directly at rexdalton@aol.com.