Rackauckas Tells 60 Minutes Jailhouse Snitch Scandal is a “False Narrative”

OC District Attorney Tony Rackauckas speaks during a court hearing. (Pool photo by the Orange County Register.)

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said reports the DA’s office and Sheriff used secret jailhouse informants and withheld the information from defense attorneys is a “false narrative,” according to interviews on 60 Minutes that aired Sunday night.

“So the public defender made a lot of allegations, of all kinds of criminal conduct, of terrible things,” Rackauckas said. “And believe me–and if those things were true– we should be in jail, frankly; if those things were true, that would be very bad.”

Rackauckas has maintained there is no organized network of jailhouse informants. Asked by 60 Minutes’ Sharyn Alfonsi how often his office uses informants, he said “not very often.”

“Informants are not the most reliable people around,” Rackauckas said. “They are in fact unreliable and everybody knows that.”

For the past few years Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders has filed court documents about a secret system is used by the Orange County District Attorney and Sheriff’s Department to repeatedly violate the constitutional rights of criminal defendants by planting informants next to them in jail.

The documents prompted Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals to bar the entire District Attorney’s office from prosecuting a murder case and has spurred ongoing investigations by the Department of Justice, California Attorney General and Orange County Grand Jury. And disclosure of the rights violations have led judges to overturn the convictions of at least six Orange County defendants charged with murder and other serious crimes.

60 Minutes interviewed a former jailhouse informant named Mark Cleveland, who claimed he was regularly planted next to criminal defendants in jail and guided to “fish for information that might help bolster the prosecutors’ cases.”

Cleveland told 60 Minutes that he could pick up the phone whenever he wanted and call the DA’s office and, at times, spoke directly with Rackauckas. Rackauckas said Cleveland’s account is “fantasy.”

From the 60 Minutes transcript:

Sharyn Alfonsi: How should we take Mark Cleveland’s statements that he made to us about all this?

Tony Rackauckas: I think you should assume you’re talking to an informant. And if he’s talking, he’s probably lying.

The segment aired just ahead of a hearing scheduled to begin Tuesday in the case of Scott Evans Dekraai, a mass murderer who shot and killed his ex-wife and seven others at a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011.

Sanders has accused the DA’s office of illegally planting an informant named Fernando Perez in a cell next to Dekraai and attempting to cover it up by hiding Perez’s history as an informant. Rackauckas told 60 Minutes that Perez’s placement next to Dekraai is just “a coincidence.”

From the 60 Minutes transcript:

Tony Rackauckas: It’s getting around that there’s some kind of a conspiracy or there’s some kind of– or there’s some kind of willingness to violate people’s rights or to not give people a fair trial, that’s a false narrative. That’s just– that’s simply not true.

Sharyn Alfonsi: OK, so clarify it for me.

Tony Rackauckas:  So the public defender made a lot of allegations, of all kinds of criminal conduct, of terrible things. And believe me– and if those things were true– we should be in jail, frankly; if those things were true, that would be very bad.

Sharyn Alfonsi: But what about the allegation that the office withheld evidence?

Tony Rackauckas: The office did not withhold evidence; we have not withheld any evidence.

Sanders is arguing that Dekraai, who is in the phase of his trial to determine his sentence, should be spared the death penalty because of the egregious violations of his constitutional rights.

At the hearing this week, Goethals wants attorneys to explore the role of the Sheriff’s Department in handling evidence for the Dekraai case and answer whether the department destroyed or withheld records detailing the handling and movements of jailhouse informants.

Sanders wants to call Sheriff Sandra Hutchens as a witness. 

A full transcript and video of the entire 60 Minutes segment is available online on the CBS website. 

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.