Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said at a court hearing Wednesday that while she believes there was no widespread misuse of jailhouse informants by her department, sheriff’s deputies moved confidential informants in the jails to elicit incriminating statements from defendants over the course of years.
“Is it your current conclusion that over a course of years, rather than over a course of days, weeks or even months, sheriff’s deputies operating inside the Orange County jail system intentionally moved working confidential informants into close proximity with targeted defendants?” asked Judge Thomas Goethals, a question he has asked several other witnesses in the hearing.
“I would say yes,” Hutchens said.
She agreed with Goethals’ statement that the goal of the movement was to “elicit incriminating statements” from those defendants.
“We’re not talking once or twice. This happened for a long time, didn’t it?” Goethals asked.
“Yes,” Hutchens replied.
Hutchens testified Wednesday at a hearing packed with television cameras, attorneys, reporters and members of the public.
The hearing is part of the 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. His jail confession occurred after he was represented by an attorney, in violation of his constitutional rights, and after he had already confessed to the police.
As part of the hearing, Hutchens will need to convince Goethals that her department has complied with subpoenas dating back to January 2013, despite major delays in the production of two key records, the Special Handling log and computer records known as TREDs, that have raised questions about whether the Sheriff’s Department destroyed or deliberately withheld documents from the court.
Depending on what he hears, Goethals may rule out the death penalty entirely, and sentence Dekraai to eight consecutive life sentences in prison. At least six other murder cases have had sentences overturned or reduced as a result the snitch scandal.
Echoing statements she has previously made to the media, the Sheriff testified she believes arguments that Orange County has a system of jailhouse informants are “blown out of proportion” and that if there was any misconduct, it was the work of a handful of deputies.
“…In my mind, it is not something widespread. It is not something they devote, as a unit, the majority of their time,” Hutchens said regarding the use of informants. “I will not sit here and say that nobody may have violated something with respect to handling informants because we all know there are matters under investigation.”
It is not illegal to use informants against someone charged with a crime, but it’s unconstitutional if a defendant is already represented by an attorney.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders showed Hutchens several documents that he believes prove not only the illegal use of informants, but that sergeants, lieutenants and command staff knew, and commended, deputies’ work with confidential informants, or CIs.
They include deputies’ commendations for their work “cultivating CIs;” memos that describe deputies’ duties to include cultivating, developing and managing informants; and a brag sheet written by deputy William Grover for his supervisor, in which he discusses how he developed a confidential informant that helped investigators execute a search warrant on a methamphetamine lab.
Hutchens said she had not seen any of those documents.
The Sheriff also repeated an argument made by several other witnesses, that the term “informants” has been ill-defined and used broadly and erroneously by deputies in their writings, giving the appearance of a vast network of jailhouse informants who were cultivated and maintained by jail deputies.
The reality, Hutchens testified, is deputies who worked with informants were acting “at the direction of an outside agency” or were gathering information volunteered by inmates to keep the jail safe.
“Do they go around looking for informants to build a case of their own – no,” Hutchens said. “But do they deal with informants on behalf of other outside agency requests or our investigations? It [depends on] what you mean by the term informants.”
“I think it’s a matter of semantics,” said Hutchens.
Goethals appeared skeptical at times, noting that after the disclosure of TREDs – a computerized database of inmate movements – in late 2014, he received several sworn statements from Sheriff’s Department staff that they had produced all the documents to comply with court subpoenas.
“Before the Special Handling log washed ashore in March 2016, I read several declarations, sworn statements from people under your command, who said, ‘we’ve looked everywhere and we don’t have anything else,’” Goethals said to the Sheriff. “And lo and behold, in March 2016, not only is there something, but there’s another 1,156 pages.”
He also mentioned the first witness in the hearing, Lt. Andy Stephens, who testified in late May that the department still had not searched 68 boxes of files that were found in a room in the Intake Release Center.
“I’ve heard that everything was turned over, but time after time, that has turned out to be not true,” Goethals said.
Hutchens said she could not explain why the boxes had not been searched or why the Special Handling log was never discovered by the sergeants supervising the Special Handling unit.
She blamed the delays in part on the jail’s aging computer system.
The Sheriff said the department has since improved its practices in order to ensure documents are properly produced to the court and that deputies are properly trained in the law surrounding informants.
“I am confident that we have taken appropriate steps to make sure we’re complying with the law,” Hutchens said.
Hutchens also maintained that she and other command staff knew nothing about the Special Handling log, a trove of notes by jail deputies that was disclosed in 2016.
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 by news media.
“My command staff, I don’t know a single member that said they knew it existed,” Hutchens said. “It was not a department requested or authorized log.”
Goethals asked her to respond to a statement made by another witness, Deputy Jonathan Larson, who testified last week that his sergeants read the log and would ask deputies’ questions about it.
“When Deputy Larson says that, and I believe him, I would hope these weren’t the same sergeants who said they’ve looked everywhere,” Hutchens responded.
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