Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens (left) and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. Credit: Pool photos by OC Register

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for violating the rights of defendants through a jail informants network, officials said Thursday.

The investigation, which was announced by federal officials in Washington, D.C., will center on how prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies 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.

“A systematic failure to protect the right to counsel and to a fair trial makes criminal proceedings fundamentally unfair and diminishes the public’s faith in the integrity of the justice system,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division.

“Our investigation will examine the facts and evidence to determine whether the district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department engaged in a pattern or practice of violating these rights. We are grateful to District Attorney [Tony] Rackauckas for the unrestricted access he has offered to provide.”

Attorneys from the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Central District of California are jointly conducting this investigation.

The federal action comes more than a year after prominent attorneys — and even Rackauckas himself — called for such an investigation.

The rights violations were first uncovered in 2014 by county public defenders for Scott Evans 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.

Scott Sanders, who leads Dekraai’s defense team, showed in lengthy motions  that prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies had improperly utilized informants in a series of cases dating back years.

An informant also was illegally used in on Dekraai while he was in the downtown Santa Ana county jail. In a statement today, Rackauckas noted that informant came from “a federal informant operation to combat gang violence.”

Dekraai pleaded guilty in the spring of 2014 to the murders. But the penalty phase of his trial has been delayed since 2015 when Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals ruled the DA couldn’t provide Dekraai a fair trial.

Goethals’ ruling called for state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris to take up the case. But Harris appealed the ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana. In November, the appellate court issued a devastating unanimous opinion that backed Goethals.

“The recusable conflict of interest…is based on the [district attorney’s] intentional or negligent participation in a covert [confidential informant] program to obtain statements from represented defendants in violation of their constitutional rights.” the opinion says. “And to withhold that information from those defendants.”

In the wake of the disclosures in the Dekraai case, at least six defendants have had their convictions for murder or other major crimes overturned for rights violations, with similar issues affecting other cases too.

After Goethals’ March 2015 ruling, more disclosures of evidence violations arose in the double murder trial of Daniel Patrick Wozniak — who was sentenced to death in September for in 2010 decapitating a neighbor and then killing the man’s friend in an attempt to cover up his crime.

The judge in the Wozniak case barred the use of any informant testimony at trial.

But in recent months, additional disclosures of sheriff’s deputy notes on informants in the Wozniak case prompted yet more releases of hidden deputy documents in the Dekraai case — where Goethals continues to seek even more records apparently still withheld since they were subpoenaed in 2013.

In a statement, Rackauckas’ office wrote: “We are pleased to work with the [Justice Department], provide all needed documents and information, and hope for an expedited conclusion to their civil inquiry.

“The [district attorney’s office] believes at the conclusion of the [federal probe] they will conclude that the DA did not engage in systematic or intentional violation of civil rights of any inmate or innocent person who was wrongfully convicted.”

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens echoed Rackauckas in her statement, saying : “I welcome this review and investigation and will cooperate fully. It is, and has been, our ultimate goal to have a jail system that is exemplary and that upholds its duty to the inmates, our staff and the people of Orange County.”

On the federal investigation, Sanders cited the appellate court’s opinion that the “magnitude of the systematic problems can’t be overlooked.”

“It is hoped that the Justice Department’s probe will help reform the system, so that all Orange County residents will receive the constitutional protections to which they are entitled,” he said.

The appellate ruling, along with the disclosure of a county grand jury civil investigation, have added intensity to an ongoing criminal investigation by the state AG’s office.

Begun in 2015, the AG’s probe is centered on allegations by Goethals in his rulings that sheriff’s deputies and a prosecutor provided false testimony during a lengthy evidentiary hearing in the Dekraai case.

In recent Dekraai hearings, Goethals also has been sharply critical of the sheriff for failing produce evidence ordered years ago.

On Friday, Goethals will hold yet another Dekraai hearing in his quest to seek full compliance with his earlier rulings on evidence disclosures.

And last Saturday, many of the families of Dekraai’s victims held a press conference, arguing that Rackauckas’ continuing drive for the death for Dekraai should be ceased.

The family members say they prefer the state accept Dekraai’s offer of life without possibility of parole, rather than deal with continuing disruption of the legal fighting. However, some family members still want a death penalty issued.

While Rackauckas has said he continues to support the death penalty for Dekraai, he also stated the decision is up to the AG’s office.

Because Harris, who won a U.S. Senate seat in November, will resign her post by the first week in January, it’s unlikely that a decision will come before her replacement (likely to be U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra) is sworn in.

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

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