Nearly 250 pages of notes documenting a secret jailhouse informant network run by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department were released Monday, providing an unvarnished view of how snitches were utilized in violations of defendants’ rights.
By putting the long-sealed records into the public file of mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai, Judge Thomas M. Goethals has given the public the most complete record yet of how deputies deployed informants from 2008 to 2013.
Initially, sheriff’s deputies, prosecutors and law enforcement officers denied in Orange County Superior Court hearings before Goethals there was an informant network or records about it in the case of Dekraai — who in 2011 gunned down his ex-wife and seven others in a Seal Beach beauty salon.
But since a 2014-2015 special evidentiary hearing before Goethals — along with disclosures from another capital murder case — more and more previously undisclosed informant records were forced into public view by Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s public defender.
The files released Monday are from what is called the “special handing log,” a computerized record that was first disclosed earlier this year in the case of Daniel Patrick Wozniak — who last September was given the death sentence for a 2010 double murder.
After reviewing 1,157 pages of the log, Goethals winnowed the records down to the 242 pages of what could be provided the defense and the public.
(Click here to read all 242 pages of the records released Monday. )
The documents released are heavily redacted, which limits interpretations about various cases.
But they describe a variety of “capers” whereby deputy-associated informants — many facing long or life sentences — worked assiduously to secure compromising crime details from a host of defendants.
There are references to cells at the County Jail in Santa Ana being wired for audio recordings as informants were engaged with defendants in conversations — recordings that may have violated the right to counsel and evidence disclosure requirements.
The logs include the names of informants — along with street names like “Wicked” or “Scar” — involved in the Dekraai and other cases, where defendants did not receive appropriate evidentiary disclosures from prosecutors.
These are the latest revelations in a years-long scandal that has rocked both the Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, with Goethals asserting that a prosecutor and sheriff’s deputies made false statements, along with violating defendants’ due process rights.
Some 15 cases have been affected, including at least a half dozen where convictions for murders or other serious crimes were set aside.
Because of repeated violations of Dekraai’s constitutional rights, Goethals last year sanctioned Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ team for failing to turn over evidence to Sanders; thereby, limiting evidence that can be presented at the penalty phase of Dekraai’s trial to material directly related to the crime and the impact on victims’ families.
And in an extremely rare instance, Goethals barred Rackauckas’ entire office last year from continuing to prosecute the penalty phase because of the inability to provide Dekraai a fair trial.
Last month, the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana upheld Goethals’ ruling, issuing a stinging opinion, which may be appealed to the California Supreme Court. If Goethals’ ruling is upheld, Dekraai would be prosecuted by the state Attorney General’s office. A county grand jury also is conducting a civil inquiry of the informant system.
Rackauckas’ team is still calling for the death penalty for Dekraai, as his defense team seeks to have it set aside in favor of life without parole after his 2014 guilty pleas.
In a statement issued today, Rackauckas’ office announced “a concrete action plan in order to remedy any legal issues” from the newly disclosed records that have been flowing out of the sheriff’s office.
“To ensure any constitutional rights of a defendant are protected,” the statement said, “the number one goal was to broadly make sure any defendants that are entitled to discovery receive their discovery and/or any other remedy.”
A hearing will be held Tuesday before Goethals, when prosecutors may set the stage for more evidentiary disclosures.
In a statement from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ office, officials described how they recently have been seeking to plumb the agency’s computer system to secure records that may need to be provided to defendants in numerous other cases.
The sheriff’s statement called this “a methodical and coordinated endeavor.”
But for months, county counsel — representing the sheriff’s office — has fought in court to seal the special handling log and other records from public disclosure.
County counsel has argued the risk of exposing informants or their families to retaliation was paramount. The county even unsuccessfully sought a ruling recently from the appellate court to try and seal the records.
With the public disclosure last March of the special handling log, the sheriff’s statement said a team was established that is specifically dedicated to finding and reviewing discovery documents.
In October, this included “a search of every share computer drive” involving jail custody, the statement said. In November, a search was completed of about 580,000 files.
The team remains “committed to searching for and providing documents that are responsive to discovery requests and subpoenas,” the sheriff’s statement said, adding an internal administrative investigation is ongoing.
The sheriff also noted continued cooperation with the state Attorney General’s Office, which announced in 2015 a criminal investigation into allegations deputies and a prosecutor allegedly provided false testimony about the informant network in the Dekraai case.
In his ruling that barred Rackauckas’ team from prosecuting Dekraai’s penalty trial phase, Goethals named two sheriff’s deputies integrally involved in the informant special handling program as not testifying truthfully.
During subsequent hearings, records show a third deputy also allegedly provided false testimony in the Dekraai case.
The special handling log shows these three deputies in day-to-day involvement with what are often called “confidential informants,” or a “CI.” Hutchens’ office said Monday the entire special handling log has been provided to the AG’s office.
In January 2013 just before the evidentiary hearing in the Dekraai case began, testimony later showed, the special handling log was cancelled.
In hearings during recent months, Goethals has become increasingly irate over the fact that the Sheriff’s Department hadn’t provided the special handling log in January 2013 when he ordered all such records to be given to Dekraai’s attorneys after subpoenas.
And most recently, Goethals has been pushing the sheriff via county counsel to provide records of any special handling log’s replacement system.
The sheriff’s statement says her office last September “dissolved” the special handling corps of deputies that work with informants — then created a “custody intelligence unit.”
Future hearings before Goethals are expected to probe the issues of what other deputy records may still require disclosure to defendants.
Rex Dalton can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.