Orange County sheriff’s deputies for years maintained a secret, “unauthorized” blog on jail informants that was withheld from defense attorneys subpoenaing such records, according to testimony Tuesday in the Daniel Patrick Wozniak double murder case.
Details about the “special handling blog” buried in the computer system of the main county jail in Santa Ana were revealed during an unusual hearing in the trial of Wozniak -- who faces the death penalty for the 2010 killing of a Costa Mesa man and a woman friend from Irvine.
And Tuesday’s testimony showed that one of the sheriff’s deputies who stashed notes in the secret blog was accused of providing false testimony in 2014 during the prosecution of convicted mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai. Last year, based on that revelation and other constitutional rights violations, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals barred District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ team from prosecuting the death penalty phase of Dekraai’s trial.
The new note cache emerged during another murder trial in February in Santa Ana Superior Court; but details were unknown until Scott Sanders, who is both Wozniak's and Dekraai's public defender, began late last month subpoenaing any such records in the case.
These details were revealed during a remarkable all-day hearing Tuesday before Judge John D. Conley, with testimony by sheriff’s officials, including Commander Adam Powell, who oversees all of Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ investigative services.
This is now the second time Sanders has uncovered a computer system through which sheriff’s deputies kept secret potentially helpful evidence from murder defendants. The Dekraai case revealed a system maintained by deputies with so-called TRED records on informants and inmates in county jails.
It was not disclosed until late 2014 when prosecutors responded to an 11th hour subpoena by Sanders. The TRED records were instrumental in Goethals’ decision that some deputies provided false testimony in the Dekraai case.
Ultimately last year, Goethals ruled the state Attorney General’s Office should prosecute the penalty phase of Dekraai’s trial. The judge’s order is under appeal, with Rackauckas’ plan to seek the death penalty on hold.
Then in February, Goethals overturned the 2006 murder conviction of Henry Rodriguez of Anaheim for a 1998 double murder, citing constitutional rights violations involving informant evidence again “washing ashore.”
During the Rodriguez proceedings for a retrial, a sheriff’s deputy from the special handling unit that works with jail informants produced the heretofore unknown cache of computer notes -- which started multi-pronged hunts for more similar records.
Last month, Sanders subpoenaed any similar notes from the sheriff’s department for his defense of Wozniak -- who in December was convicted by a jury who recommended the death penalty.
Wozniak faces sentencing on May 20. But a sentencing on that date looks increasingly unlikely given the ongoing hearing that continues Thursday.
Unless he can win a dismissal of the death penalty, Sanders has said in court that he will seek a new penalty phase trial for Wozniak, with the evolving mishandling of evidentiary notes likely to play a significant role. Sanders was scheduled to file a major motion in the case May 6, but that too is likely to be delayed.
A Cat and Mouse Game
The legal jousting began on March 29 before Conley over access to the so-called special handling blog, as the County Counsel’s office sought to quash Sanders’ subpoena for such records. Conley ordered testimony Tuesday to learn about the newly discovered records.
Working on behalf of the sheriff’s department, Deputy County Counsel Elizabeth A. Pejeau and a sheriff’s custodian of records, Sgt. Kirsten W. Monteleone, provided copies of newly found notes for Conley to review in a private session to determine what could be turned over to the defense. [This process is designed to protect inmates from violence and their privacy rights.]
But in a court session that was recessed repeatedly so the custodian could leave to retrieve records, Conley was forced to postpone the private review until Monday. In particular, Conley said he couldn’t determine what should or shouldn’t be redacted from the notes because he initially wasn’t provided an un-redacted copy of the material.
After privately reviewing various notes Monday, he ruled that the defense should receive dozens of pages of the records, some of which were heavily redacted.
Additionally, Conley ruled -- with agreement from Pejeau -- that the sheriff’s new search found notes that should be provided to Sanders under earlier subpoenas.
After Tuesday’s hearing, the DA’s office released a statement saying prosecutors were unaware of the notes -- while issuing a rare public rebuke of the Sheriff’s Department.
"The [DA's office] finds it distressing that these notes would be withheld from the [DA], the court and the public until this hearing," read the statement.
In response to a reporter's questions Tuesday, Sheriff's Department spokesman Lt. Mark Stichter said: “We notified the defense about the discovery of the additional notes. We have been and continue to be responsive to the subpoenas in this case.”
And the DA's statement also said Hutchens had assured Rackauckas’ office that she would take “appropriate internal actions to address the issue.”
But testimony by Powell and Monteleone about how the sheriff’s team began unraveling the trail of documents that led to the record disclosures raises questions about any inquiry.
For instance, Monteleone said repeatedly under questioning by Sanders that she kept no records to document her interviews with deputies who kept the notes, made no written reports to superiors about her inquiries, and didn’t have a dated log of her actions.
She said she had “a pretty good memory,” but then repeatedly answered she didn’t know or couldn’t recall when Sanders asked about who said what to whom and when.
For example, Monteleone said her questioning of Ben Garcia -- a special handling deputy, who was cited by Goethals for false testimony in the Dekraai case -- led her to discover the special handling blog.
Initially, Monteleone said Garcia told her he had disclosed all required material for earlier subpoenas in the Dekraai and Wozniak cases.
But when shown the documents that emerged in the Rodriquez case, she testified Garcia told her they looked like what he called “a daily log” that special handling deputies kept.
Monteleone testified that Garcia told her he hadn’t divulged such information because he thought they were not responsive to any subpoena.
Monteleone -- who previously worked in special handling, and has served as a custodian of records for more than a year -- testified she was unaware of the special handling blog. [Numerous prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys said the same thing about TRED records when they were revealed in the Dekraai case.]
Neither Monteleone nor Powell could say when the special handling blog was started, but records show it dated to at least 2004. Monteleone did say its last entry was in 2013.
At that time, Sanders was locked in pitched battle with prosecutors to secure informant records in the Dekraai case. Goethals then provided to Sanders a trove of informant records that in 2014 begat lengthy motions on widespread evidence irregularities -- which subsequently led to multiple defendants having their murder or major crime convictions overturned.
In expressing his “surprise” at learning about the special handing blog about two or three weeks ago, Powell called the records “off-file documents” -- which he later defined as an “unauthorized” part of the system not sanctioned by the sheriff executive management for use.
Upon learning about such records, Powell said he sent out an email and memo to all staff seeking any additional similar notes.
Some additional notes have been trickling in, Powell testified, and he expects more to come.
Such notes also were kept on a deputy personal computer, at least one deputy had notes from another deputy, and some files had notes from different years within them, testimony showed.
Like Monteleone, Powell said he made no written records or reports of his inquiries about the notes, informing the sheriff’s executive command verbally.
And when questioned about an audit the sheriff’s department reportedly was conducting, Monteleone said she wouldn’t call it that, but considered it “a search.”
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