Orange County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Jonathan Larson testified at a court hearing Thursday he recalled continuous use of the Special Handling log, daily notes kept by jail deputies, during his year in the Special Handling unit, the same year there is an unexplained six-month gap in the log.
The Sheriff’s Department has been unable to explain why between April and early October of 2011 there are no entries in the daily log, a key piece of evidence that has shed light on how the Sheriff’s Department worked with informants in county jails.
“I didn’t write in the log personally, but the log was being done the whole time I was there.”
–Orange County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Jonathan Larson testified under oath, later clarifying that he did write in the log, just not every day
At the hearing Thursday, Judge Thomas Goethals asked Lt. Michael McHenry, who helped gather jailhouse documents for court cases, for his theory on the gap in log entries.
“I can think of two. Journaling like that log takes a lot of effort, and if you’re busy and no one’s paying attention, it doesn’t get done,” McHenry said.
“That’s the random explanation. What’s the other explanation?” Goethals asked.
“It got deleted,” McHenry said.
The hearing is part of the ongoing case of Scott Evans Dekraai, a mass murderer who shot and killed eight people at a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011. Although Dekraai has admitted guilt, the case has been delayed for years after it was disclosed that Dekraai confessed to an informant while in custody, in violation of his constitutional rights.
The case has also been delayed as major sources of jail evidence related to informants, including the Special Handling log, were disclosed in late 2014 and 2016, prompting questions as to why the records emerged so long after they were originally ordered in January 2013.
The Special Handling log and a computer database of inmate movements known as TRED have shed light on the ongoing jailhouse snitch scandal, or how Sheriff’s deputies, often at the behest of investigators, worked informants in the jails to obtain confessions, at times from charged defendants without the knowledge of defense attorneys.
The court may consider throwing out the death penalty altogether if it’s shown that Sheriff’s Department officials destroyed, withheld or delayed disclosure of evidence related to jail informants despite subpoenas to produce the records.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders has argued in court motions that the six months of log entries were deliberately deleted to destroy damning evidence during that period that Fernando Perez, the prolific informant to whom Dekraai confessed, was working with law enforcement to get confessions from two charged inmates.
But there are unanswered questions about Larson’s testimony.
Larson said he does not remember when exactly he started working in Special Handling, the jail unit that deals with sensitive inmates, including informants. He says it was sometime in late 2010 or early 2011.
He testified that when he first arrived in the unit, the log was not in use. But shortly after he arrived, Lieutenant Brent Giudice revived its use, Larson said.
Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy, who has taken over prosecution of Dekraai, asked Larson to explain an interview he gave to Sgt. Mike Few, as documented in an October 2016 memo. Few writes that Larson said he “and other team members discontinued the log for a period of time in 2011.”
“I thought I told him that it started in 2011 because it was not being done prior to that,” Larson said.
Sergeants and lieutenants of the jail have testified in this hearing that they were not aware of much of the informant activity described in the Special Handling log and that they had not read the log, or were unaware of it entirely, until it was released publicly and published in the newspaper.
But Larson stated that his “immediate supervisors and lieutenants knew what we were doing” with respect to informants.
“Our lieutenants read through our evaluations, looked through our log on a daily basis, from my understanding,” Larson said. “We would talk to our supervisors – they’d come in and have questions if there was something they didn’t understand in the log.”
Only one of the four sergeants who supervised Larson during his year in Special Handling has testified in the hearing so far.
The court hearing will resume July 5 with testimony from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.
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