Three Years Later, Frustrated Judge Still May Not Have All Jailhouse Snitch Records

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department cut in half the size of the unit monitoring jail informants and the officer in charge of maintaining its records testified in court Tuesday he doesn’t know if the staff has reviewed all 68 boxes of files that could have relevant information about the county’s use of jailhouse informants.

That information was particularly frustrating for Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who has been seeking disclosure of such documents under a court order for more than three years, and has even threatened to hold Sheriff Sandra Hutchens in contempt of court if her department didn’t produce the documents.

“I am underwhelmed at this moment by the diligence of the search…so many years after the original discovery order,” Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said after hearing the testimony of Sheriff’s Sgt. Andrew Stephens.

Stephens, who took over supervision of 68 boxes of files spanning 30 years in September 2016, testified since the Sheriff’s Department’s use of jailhouse informants was unveiled in a series of 2014 hearings, the two special handling units tasked with monitoring informants in jail have been disbanded. They’ve been restructured into one unit known as the Custody Intelligence Unit, which has half the staff of the previous two units.

He testified he is unsure whether his staff has searched through all the boxes.

Tuesday was the first day of a hearing where Goethals wants attorneys to address allegations the Sheriff’s Department delayed, withheld or destroyed documents in the special handling log, a digital record kept by deputies on jailhouse informants.

The hearing is an outgrowth of the death penalty case of Scott Evans Dekraai, a mass murderer who shot and killed his ex-wife and seven others in 2011 at a Seal Beach beauty salon. The hearing is in the sentencing phase to determine whether he will receive the death penalty or a life prison term.

But the Dekraai case has evolved into a case study of the Sheriff and Orange County District Attorney’s use of jailhouse informants after it was revealed a seasoned informant was placed in a cell next to Dekraai to elicit a confession. His defense attorneys were not told about the informant, a violation of Dekraai’s constitutional rights.

The use of jailhouse informants by the Sheriff and DA’s office has drawn national attention and spawned separate investigations by the Department of Justice, California Attorney General and OC Grand Jury. Goethals has also barred the DA’s office from participating in the rest of Dekraai’s trial. Instead, the state Attorney General’s office is handling the case.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders has alleged in lengthy court briefs that the Sheriff’s Department shredded documents and changed a policy on records retention to allow it to destroy records about jailhouse informants.

Goethals wants Sanders and attorneys with the state Attorney General, who took over prosecution of Dekraai, to address those allegations so he can determine whether or not to impose sanctions for the failure to produce documents.

Sanders has argued the violation of his client’s rights are so egregious that the death penalty should be thrown out.

Among several Sheriff’s officials to be called by Sanders as witnesses is Hutchens.

“I would like to think the Sheriff would welcome the opportunity to come into this court room and answer questions under oath,” Goethals said Tuesday, adding he thinks Hutchens would want to “reassure the community that she wouldn’t knowingly tolerate” misconduct in her office.

He referred to promises Hutchens made in 2008 that she would be a “breath of fresh air” when she was appointed sheriff following the resignation of former Sheriff Mike Carona, who was indicted, and later convicted, on federal corruption charges.

If Hutchens does not want to testify, Goethals said he has “not shut the door on ordering her to appear.”

Sanders has also sought to call officials with the District Attorney’s office, including Assistant District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh, although Goethals has so far declined to call Baytieh as a witness.

Deputy Attorney General Mike Murphy said the hearing should not be “hijacked to investigate allegations of misconduct” and should focus on the limited question of evidence discovery and how possible sanctions should affect Dekraai’s sentence.

Murphy, echoing comments from Goethals, said the judge and Appeals Court have already ruled on the question of whether the Sheriff’s Department maintained an informants network. He noted there already are ongoing investigations on the local, state and national level into the Sheriff and DA’s use of informants.

“He doesn’t get to act as a civil watchdog or a grand jury,” Murphy said, referring to Sanders.

The hearing will continue Thursday at 9 a.m.

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