The Orange County Sheriff Department's irregular handling of jail informant records is at the center of a renewed push by public defender Scott Sanders to save mass-murderer Scott Evans Dekraai from the death penalty.
In a Aug. 4 letter, Sanders asserts that troubling evidence disclosed since February in a separate murder case buttresses law enforcement’s “persistent efforts to obstruct justice” in the Dekraai case.
Sanders' letter cites a record indicating that deputies surreptitiously eavesdropped on a constitutionally protected conference he had with Dekraaai in jail. And he raises questions about the veracity of public statements and court testimony by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ command staff about a here-to-fore secret log on jailed informants.
The letter is the latest salvo in an ongoing effort by Sanders to try to show that the misconduct of the DA prosecutorial team -- which includes sheriff's deputies -- in the Dekraai case is egregious enough for Judge Thomas M. Goethals to bar the death penalty for Dekraai. Sanders has followed a similar course in the case of convicted double-murderer Daniel Patrick Wozniak, who he also represents, but with less success.
(Click here to read the letter submitted by Sanders)
In the spring of 2014, Dekraai pleaded guilty to the 2011 slaughter of his ex-wife and seven others during a shooting rampage in a Seal Beach beauty salon.
Last December, Wozniak was convicted by a jury of in 2010 decapitating his neighbor in Costa Mesa, then killing a woman from Irvine in a cover-up attempt. In January, a jury recommended death for Wozniak, with sentencing set for Sept. 23 in Superior Court in Santa Ana.
During the course of nearly three years, Sanders’ defense of Dekraai has revealed a snitch operation run by sheriff deputies within county jails, where the constitutional rights of inmates allegedly were violated for years. Subsequently, more than a half-dozen defendants have had their convictions for murder or serious crimes overturned.
In March 2015, Goethals blocked District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' entire prosecution team from prosecuting the death penalty phase of Dekraai’s trial after repeated misconduct involving informant evidence. That ruling is now under appeal.
Then this past spring during hearings before Judge John D. Conley regarding Wozniak’s sentencing, Sanders' questioning of sheriff's deputies and executive management raised the volatile new issues about the special handling squad of deputies for informants in the county jail in Santa Ana.
What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?
At the crux of the new evidence that arose in the Wozniak case are computer files -- called the “special handling log” -- which deputies used to chart jail informants and inmates of interest on a daily basis.
During the recent hearings, Hutchens’ command staff maintained they only learned of this computer log in February, when its existence emerged in another murder case before Goethals. [That defendant’s conviction then was overturned by Goethals because of informant evidence violations.]
But in his letter, Sanders argues that Sheriff's Department brass likely knew about the log for far longer.
On Friday, a Hutchens spokesman, Cap. Jeff Hallock, said the sheriff and command staff are “standing by” their statements and testimony that February “was the first they learned” of the special handling log.
Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for Rackauckas emailed a statement that it doesn’t respond to the Voice of OC. In a previous press release, prosecutors stated they were completely unaware of the special handling log until earlier this year, despite multiple queries of the sheriff’s department for such records.
Sander’s 10-page letter released Friday was sent to top prosecutors in Rackauckas’ office -- requesting extensive record-keeping of any investigations to be conducted by the DA or the sheriff, and then disclosure of pertinent records to his office or the Goethals’ court by Aug. 17. Goethals also is scheduled to review evidence requested by Sanders on Aug. 19.
“This letter is not intended to encourage your office to investigate alleged misconduct by members of the Dekraai prosecution team or the [sheriff’s department] related to the concealment of the jailhouse informant program, the improper efforts to hide the Special Handling log [to monitor informants] and the persistent attempts to obstruct justice,” Sanders wrote.
But if such probes are undertaken, Sanders said he wants records of them.
Details From the Letter
Citing documents in both the Dekraai and Wozniak cases, court testimony and sheriff records on the informant program, Sanders’ letter stated:
* On Oct. 26, 2011 -- about two weeks after Dekraai’s shooting rampage -- a DA investigator wrote of a “debrief meeting” where a Seal Beach detective disclosed Dekraai’s “covert jail recordings have been terminated.” He wrote that Sanders “apparently told Dekraai not to talk to anyone” because cells “are frequently wired for covert recordings.”
That meeting included two prosecutors of Dekraai, Daniel Wagner, head of the DA’s homicide division, and Scott Simmons, according to the DA investigator’s “personal log,” which was disclosed to the defense in 2014.
The question is “how Dekraai’s prosecution team came into the possession of [defense] counsel’s communication” that cells are “frequently wired,” Sanders wrote. He added: “This clearly reflects a conversation between myself and Dekraai.”
Given the deputies history, Sanders wrote, it is “unreasonable” to believe they “drew the line at monitoring the communications between counsel and his client.”
* While Commander Adam Powell testified in May that the newly disclosed records were “an unauthorized blog” [described as “off-file documents”] were unknown to command staff, Sanders wrote in his letter such a claim was “dubious.”
Of Powell’s testimony the blog was “unauthorized,” Sanders wrote: “History and logic suggests it is nothing of the sort.”
Sanders described how the log “likely was instituted” by the sheriff and her command in the aftermath of the high-profile 2006 inmate beating death of John Derek Chamberlain at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange. [Hutchens assumed office in 2008, after the previous sheriff, Mike Carona, resigned when charged with felony witness tampering.]
Sanders wrote “the most accurate description” of the special handling log was “that it was an approved ‘unauthorized’ log.”
In particular, Sanders cited records showing that a member of Hutchens’ executive staff -- Commander Jon Briggs, who now oversees county jail operations -- was a lieutenant supervising the special handling crew from early 2011 to early 2012. That squad included deputy Ben Garcia, who Goethals accused of giving false testimony in the Dekraai hearing.
Sanders called Briggs the “perfect person” within the sheriff’s command to have known of the computer log and “lend insight.” Spokesman Hallock said Briggs joined the command staff last February.
* Given the history of hidden records, Sanders wrote he is seeking additional documentation from a faulty investigation in Chamberlain’s death a decade ago. Such information could undermine a 2014 appellate case that was instrumental in allowing the DA to continue to seek the death penalty for Dekraai.
After Chamberlain’s death, five inmates convicted of murder filed an appeal alleging outrageous government conduct in their prosecution.
Specificially, deputies at the Theo Lacy Facility allegedly gave inmates erroneous information that he Chamberlain was a child molester, leading to his killing. Deputies were also accused of not diligently protecting Chamberlain.
In July 2014, a state 4th District Court of Appeal panel in Santa Ana rejected the inmates' argument -- issuing a ruling that created a high bar for the level of outrageous government conduct required to overturn a conviction or reject a death penalty.
That decision was rendered just a month before Goethals’ ruling in August 2014 that the government’s conduct was not outrageous enough to bar the death penalty for Dekraai. The Dekraai prosecution cited the appellate decision, and Goethals agreed.
In 2015, Goethals reaffirmed that previous ruling when he barred Rackauckas’ team from prosecuting the death penalty phase of Dekraai's trial.
In the aftermath, probes -- including one by Rackauckas’ office -- found multiple instances of deputies allegedly altering or withholding records from investigators. This included withholding a log of jail “shot callers” [who identified target gang victims for killing], Sanders wrote in his letter.
Sanders argues Chamberlain defendants -- now serving life sentences in prison -- may have been denied vital information to impeach witnesses at their trials, which would raises questions about their convictions. And Dekraai also should have those records for his defense, he wrote.
If more evidence irregularities emerge, Sanders wrote, it raises questions about whether the 2014 appellate ruling “should be appropriately relied upon” by Goethals in his Dekraai rulings on the death penalty.