New disclosures about Orange County sheriff’s deputies hiding another secret cache of records about jail informants is threatening to postpone the May 20 sentencing of convicted double-murderer Daniel Patrick Wozniak.
The new legal dispute is the latest in the informant scandal that has engulfed Orange County law enforcement for more than two years, resulting in multiple murder convictions being overturned because of constitutional rights violations by sheriff's deputies and prosecutors.
On April 15, Scott Sanders, Wozniak's public defender, filed a motion seeking additional evidence from the sheriff’s department after a deputy’s records unexpectedly appeared recently in another murder case.
In a response filed April 20, the County Counsel’s Office, which represents the Sheriff’s Department in such disputes, said it has begun a search to determine if deputies involved in the Wozniak case and others also have such records.
Friday, Judge John D. Conley said he needed more time to review the court filings, postponing until April 29 arguments in Superior Court in Santa Ana about whatever records emerge.
Last December, Wozniak was convicted by a jury of killing Samuel E. Herr, a Huntington Beach neighbor who he decapitated and dismembered; and then killing Herr's friend, Juri “Julie” Kibuishi of Irvine, as part of a cover-up plot. He now faces a possible death sentence, which Sanders is seeking to block.
In some respects, the last minute legal maneuvering mirrors what occurred in the case of Scott Evans Dekraai -- another Sanders client who was convicted in 2014 of the 2011 slaughter of eight people, including his ex-wife, in a Seal Beach beauty salon.
It was during the Dekraai case that Sanders first discovered the informants network and the constitutional abuses by prosecutors. Despite ongoing denials by the prosecution team, Sanders found that sheriff's deputies kept secret computerized records (called TREDS) that revealed how informants were used in the jails.
Those TRED records were a significant factor in Judge Thomas M. Goethals' remarkable decision in March 2015 to bar District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office from prosecuting the penalty phase of Dekraai’s trial. On behalf of Rackauckas, the state Attorney General’s Office is appealing Goethal’s ruling. Dekraai also faces the death penalty.
Then in February, Goethals was holding an evidentiary hearing for an Anaheim man -- whose attorney alleged he was wrongfully convicted in 2006 of a double murder when prosecutors violated his rights involving informant testimony.
During that hearing, Robert S. Szewczyk, a deputy sheriff in the special handling unit for informants, surprised defense attorneys the day before he was to testify by turning over notes he kept on jail informants from 2004-2008.
Based on that and other prosecution irregularities involving informants, Goethals overturned the conviction of Henry Rodriguez for the 1998 murder of a pregnant Fullerton woman and her unborn fetus.
The 39-year-old Rodriguez maintained he was not involved in the killing, but did assist the convicted murderer in disposing the body of Jeanette Gomez Espeleta in the ocean off Long Beach. Rodriquez now faces a new trial.
Records 'Washed Ashore'
In his recent motion in the Wozniak case, Sanders wrote that Szewcczyk’s were the type of notes he sought in the cases of Wozniak and Dekraai. But such records were never forthcoming, despite multiple subpoenas and related court questioning of deputies.
Not only were such actions violations of the defendants’ rights, Sanders noted, the notes also could provide favorable evidence for his clients, thereby undermining their ability to have a fair trial.
“Once again there is a reasonable possibility that special handling deputies maintained [informant]... notes that were not disclosed despite prior subpoenas because they were being concealed” or otherwise not produced, he wrote. He also cited testimony from another special handling deputy about “spring cleaning” to purge notes.
Speaking from the bench in the Rodriguez case, Goethals again was “surprised” that more law enforcement records about informants “washed ashore” -- a phrase he used repeatedly in the Dekraai case as previously undisclosed evidence appeared unexpectedly.
While Goethals ruled in the Rodriguez case that the deputy’s notes weren’t relevant for admission at the hearing, he made it clear in bench comments that such records definitely should have been disclosed to the defense.
Had there been relevant information in the records, Goethals said, he would have unsealed them and provided them to the defense “in a heartbeat.”
The fact a deputy didn’t disclose so-called “private notes” was not “irrelevant,” Goethals said, “It just makes them secret. A cynic might say how many other such records are floating around out there.”
And in a bluntly worded message to Sheriff Sandra Hutchens about her deputies’ evidence handling, Goethals told the courtroom:
“There has to be some way that the sheriff can get across to her deputies you can’t create, essentially, a cache of private classification notes and information containing potentially relevant information and keep it to yourself.”
A spokesman for Hutchens said that after the notes were discovered internally, corrective action was taken, and deputies instructed on proper record-keeping procedures. A department-wide audit was conducted to check policy compliance.
In her April 20 motion, Elizabeth A. Pejeau, a deputy county counsel, said sheriff’s deputies are being canvassed to see who else may have kept such notes.
While she called Sanders request in the Wozniak case a “fishing expedition,” she wrote: “The purpose of this search is to not only to ensure complete responses to future discovery requests and subpoenas, but to produce records that would have been responsive to previous subpoenas.”
Some results of that survey are expected to be revealed at the April 29 hearing before Conley, but details may not emerge until the judge holds a private session to review any produced deputy notes.
Pejeau argued such records are part of daily work to protect inmate safety and therefore are exempt from disclosure. Their release, she added, could violate inmate privacy; and material only could be divulged after a confidential review by a judge.
The County Counsel's Office made the similar arguments unsuccessfully when seeking to prevent disclosure of the TRED records in the Dekraai case.
If there was widespread practice of deputies keeping such notes and not disclosing them, the record would indicate that the informant scandal may be entering broader and potentially even more damaging chapter for law enforcement.
On May 6, Sanders will be filing a new motion including the results of the coming inquiries, with prosecutors responding on May 13.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a spokesman for Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens did not respond to a request for comment. The spokesman did email a comment to the reporter, but it ended up in the reporter's spam folder.
Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist and frequent Voice of OC contributor. You can reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.