It was another explosive day in the jailhouse snitch case Friday, as a Superior Court judge threatened Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens with contempt of court for the way her department has responded to his repeated requests to produce records related to the use of jailhouse informants in the Scott Evans Dekraai case.
The threat from Thomas M. Goethals came a day after the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into how the Sheriff's Department and Orange County District Attorney's Office have for years illegally gleaned information for criminal trials through covert use of informants in county jails, and then violated defendants’ constitutional rights by not disclosing that information to their attorneys.
Here's what the LA Times reported from Goethals' courtroom:
“I’ve been waiting 200 weeks, 1,400 days,” Goethals said of the Sheriff’s Department’s failure to turn over relevant documents. “This case should have been resolved long ago.”
At a hearing in the Dekraai case, Goethals said he had reviewed about 1,000 pages of some 5,600 pages of documents that the Sheriff’s Department had recently given him in response to his discovery orders.
Goethals was displeased that some of the pages had been almost entirely redacted. “Redaction falls within this court’s job description and nobody else’s, frankly,” Goethals said. “That strikes me as inappropriate at best.”
He was also displeased with what he called a “pro forma” claim by county lawyers representing the Sheriff’s Department that the documents were privileged and therefore shouldn’t be released to the defense or the public.
Goethals wondered aloud if the county lawyers had bothered to read the documents themselves, since some were clearly not privileged. He told the lawyers to make specific privilege claims by mid-January, or they would be waived.
“This volume of material walks and talks and looks and smells like a classic discovery document dump,” Goethals said, referring to the legal practice of swamping litigants with time-consuming avalanches of material. “This smells like it, folks.”
The records Goethals is demanding from the Sheriff's Department are from a so-called "special handling log" that deputies kept on jail informants and withheld from defense attorneys subpoenaing such records.
Entries from the log are important because they can show how informants may have been placed near Dekraai and other defendants to secure compromising statements. But as Goethals has noted in hearings, they also contain statements that would be embarrassing to Hutchens.
Hutchens did not respond to requests for comment from multiple news organizations.
The courtroom scene on Friday was the latest twist in a scandal that began in early 2014, when public defenders for Dekraai — who in 2011 committed Orange County’s largest-ever mass murder when he gunned down his wife and seven other people in a Seal Beach beauty salon -- first uncovered the unconstitutional acts by county law enforcement.
Dekraai’s lead public defender, Scott Sanders, showed in 2014 and 2015 during lengthy evidentiary hearings before Goethals how prosecutors and deputies for years systematically used informants to violate defendants’ rights.
Dekraai pleaded guilty in the spring of 2014 to the murders. But the penalty phase of his trial has been delayed since 2015 when Goethals ruled the DA couldn’t provide Dekraai a fair trial.
In addition to the newly announced federal investigation, state Attorney General Kamala Harris has been investigating the misconduct by prosecutors and deputies since early 2015. And last month, the county grand jury launched a probe.
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