Judge’s Decision on Whether Dekraai Faces Death Penalty Hinges on Credibility of OC Sheriff’s Department

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

Judge Thomas Goethals presides over the trial of mass murderer Scott Dekraai in a courtroom on the 11th floor of the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana on Monday, June 5, 2017.

First in a two-part series. Read part two here.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals will announce Friday if mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai faces the death penalty in a case that upended at least six other criminal convictions, damaged the reputations of both the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office and unveiled the “jailhouse snitch scandal.”

Dekraai confessed to law enforcement and pled guilty to the 2011 murders of eight people, including his wife, at a Seal Beach salon. He wounded one other person.

But the revelation that Sheriff’s deputies placed an informant in a cell next to Dekraai, resulting in an illegal confession, transformed his murder case into a wide-ranging exposé of the use of jailhouse informants by Orange County law enforcement.

Nearly six years after the murders, allegations that prosecutors and the Sheriff’s Department attempted to hide evidence of their informant program from the court could lead Goethals to rule Dekraai cannot have a fair penalty trial before a jury that would decide whether he receives life in prison or a cell on death row.

Using an informant to gather information and bolster criminal cases is not illegal, but it’s a violation of a person’s constitutional right to legal counsel if the target of that informant is already charged and represented by an attorney.

Last year, the California Fourth District Court of Appeals unanimously found “systemic problems” with informants and evidence disclosure at the Sheriff’s Department and DA’s office.

The appeals court upheld Goethals’ decision to bar the Orange County District Attorney’s office from prosecuting Dekraai, meaning the state Attorney General’s office had to step in as prosecutor.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s attorney, has argued the Sheriff’s Department for decades illegally placed informants next to inmates in jails to get incriminating evidence and confessions. He also alleges prosecutors routinely withheld informant evidence from defense attorneys, violating defendants’ rights to due process.

The Sheriff’s Department repeatedly denied the existence of a sanctioned informant program, and throughout the latest evidence hearing blamed any illegal informant use on a mostly unnamed, isolated group of inadequately-trained deputies.

Meanwhile, a controversial report by the Orange County Grand Jury, which has been criticized by legal experts, found the opposite – calling Goethals’ exploration of the subject a “witch hunt” and concluding there is no “systemic, widespread informant program.”

The grand jury report doesn’t discuss the Appeals Court ruling that removed the DA’s office from the Dekraai case or the six other cases overturned because of illegal use of informants.

In June, the Appeals Court upheld another Superior Court judge’s ruling that prosecutors with the Orange County District Attorney improperly withheld information from defense attorneys and misused a jailhouse informant.

But Goethals has said the informant issue “ship has sailed” in his courtroom and there is no question a department-sanctioned informant program existed.

The question behind the latest hearing, the third evidence hearing in the Dekraai case, is whether Goethals trusts the Sheriff’s Department has turned over all the evidence he ordered disclosed in January 2013.

The Records

The years-long delay in disclosing two categories of Sheriff’s records — a database of inmate movements known as TREDs, and more than a thousand pages of deputies’ notes, known as the special handling log – has raised questions about whether the department deliberately withheld evidence from the court.

Goethals has also lambasted the DA’s prosecution team for the delay in their disclosure, which revealed widespread use of informants in several other cases, and led to convictions being overturned for murder or other major crimes in at least six other criminal cases.

The evidence presented in the current hearing offers an incomplete picture of why the records were disclosed so much later, in large part because some of the key Sheriff’s players refused to testify.

Of the 21 people called as witnesses in the hearing, seven Sheriff’s employees invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, four of whom were granted immunity from prosecution and forced to testify.

The remaining three who did not testify – deputies Seth Tunstall, William Grover and Ben Garcia – are considered the most experienced deputies in Special Handling, the unit that manages sensitive inmates and informants.

Grover and Garcia are also the most prolific authors of the special handling log.

Testimony from various Sheriff’s officials suggest the the log wasn’t disclosed because management didn’t know it existed. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who isn’t running for re-election next year, pledged the department has now complied with all of the court’s subpoenas.

A Semantics Debate

In 2014, the Sheriff’s Department introduced a new term, “sources of information,” to describe people who casually provide information to deputies on matters like jail safety, without an agreement demanding anything in exchange for their information.

Hutchens and several witnesses said 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 lawfully and facilitating interactions between informants and outside police agencies, or were gathering information volunteered by inmates to keep the jail safe.

Sanders argued the introduction of the term “source of information” is part of a word game by the Sheriff’s Department to “create cover for false testimony” by three jail deputies – Tunstall, Grover and Garcia — who in previous hearings denied the existence of a jailhouse informant program.

Rather than committing perjury, the department could say deputies were relying on another definition of the term “informant,” Sanders said.

Lt. Dave Johnson, who supervised the special handling unit as a sergeant, testified the Special Handling unit did not “cultivate and manage” informants, but said deputies did interview inmates – who he said were sources of information, not informants – about crimes within the jail.

If they did work informants, it was without his knowledge, Johnson testified.

Johnson also disagreed with the language he used in a 2009 memo in which he wrote to his supervisor that one of the duties of Special Handling deputies was to “handle and maintain” confidential informants. In court, Johnson said he should have used the word “facilitate.”.

He claimed he never saw a memo that purportedly hung on the wall of the Special Handling Unit office. The memo includes “cultivate/manage confidential informants” among a list of duties for special handling deputies.

After Johnson’s testimony, Goethals said the lieutenant had “credibility challenges.” 

Deputy Jonathan Larson, on the other hand, testified 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.”

Meanwhile, top Sheriff’s Department officials acknowledged deputies were cultivating informants – although they attributed it to an isolated group of individuals.

Commander Jon Briggs was the first to testify that deputies were developing and using informants in the jails, stating “when you read the log, you can see that quite a few deputy sheriffs spent a good deal of their time cultivating and utilizing confidential informants.”

Briggs blamed high turnover among sergeants and lieutenants in Special Handling.

“And the deputies were kind of — if you want to refer to it as the inmates were running the asylum on that occasion,” Briggs said.

Hutchens, while saying Sander’s allegations and media coverage have “blown out of proportion” informant use in her jails, also agreed with Goethals that sheriff’s deputies were, over the course of years, intentionally moving informants near targeted inmates to get incriminating information.

“We’re not talking once or twice. This happened for a long time, didn’t it?” Goethals asked.

“Yes,” Hutchens replied.

During her testimony Hutchens said, “I am confident that we have taken appropriate steps to make sure we’re complying with the law.”

But undermining the tone of her testimony, Sanders argues, is a department-wide letter Hutchens wrote to staff after the release of the Grand Jury report.

In the letter, Hutchens writes that media coverage has “painted an inaccurate picture of OCSD” and “comments made by a handful of public officials have been equally troubling and ill-informed.”

She also doubles down on the department’s stance that they “have never had a systemic program designed to circumvent constitutional rights as has been alleged in the courts and the media.”

Whether Goethals believes all relevant records have been delivered will be revealed when he makes his ruling on Friday.

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

  • LFOldTimer

    Btw, why hasn’t there been updated news about the cause of death of Danny Pham – the jail inmate who was bunked with a said mentally unstable murderer in OCSD’s jail?

    Why is the Sheriff’s Dept allowed to hide that information from the family and from the public?

    Pham died at least 2 weeks ago. And we still aren’t allowed to know how he died?

    What it this??? The Soviet Union???

    • verifiedsane

      The Democrats would like you to believe so! (cuing the laugh track)

      It takes time to bury the evidence, facts, and create new ones…you don’t get all the Sheriff’s and DA’s criminal oligarchy wagons circled overnight…It take some time to produce a thorough & all inclusive cover-up….for now it’s all in the wind as they say…

      • LFOldTimer

        It must take extra time to get all the talking scripts coordinated with the jail staff, the coroner, the DA’s office, the EMTs, etc… so the overall story is in alignment.

        Sometimes it’s not easy to adjust the facts so they fit the storyline

  • Ed Romero

    If they are going to use the CREDIBILITY of the Sheriff Department, they better just RELEASE this Mass Murderer.

  • Paul Lucas

    If anything relies on the integrity of the ocda then it’s a lost cause

  • LFOldTimer

    “Judge’s Decision on Whether Dekraai Faces Death Penalty Hinges on Credibility of OC Sheriff’s Department”

    If the title of this blog is accurate then the death penalty for Dekraai is completely off the table. The Sheriff’s Department has already been outted as a group of lying thugs who have repeatedly and without remorse violated their sworn oaths by violating BOTH the laws of the land and the sacred provisions of our US Constitution. The courtroom evidence clearly demonstrated the Sheriff’s Department, from the very top, is nothing more than the equivalent of a street gang that believes it can openly defy the law and trample on the civil rights of other with impunity.

    And the fact that you don’t hear any in the executive staff, the police union or any of the rank ‘n file openly condemning this behavior should tell you that it’s not just a few bad apples. The whole damn barrel is rotted. Otherwise you would hear some from within speaking out to protect the integrity of the justice system. So that old BS line “There are a few bad ones everywhere” is a bunch of dog squeeze. When the “good ones” do not condemn the bad ones – THEY ARE ALL BAD!!! Sorry. That’s the honest to God truth whether you acknowledge it or not!

    The blog did not even mention the name of former (retired) OCSD Lieutenant Irons who testified under sworn oath. She was actually in charge of the jail unit in question. She testified that the executive staff not only knew about the jail informant program. She testified that she routinely passed along information about the informant program’s operations to her superior (a captain) who made the program’s management level decisions. Lieutenant Irons was inside the belly of the beast for God sakes and observed it’s daily operations. The testimony speaks for itself. It was not just a few “rogue deputies” as Hutchens and Dr. Comedy in charge of the Grand Jury asserted.

    The taxpayers of OC pay Sheriff Sandy Hutchens about $400,000 in compensation annually. For that generous sum of money we should expect the utmost in integrity from her and from her department. But the myriad of latest scandals (and there have been many) show that she runs her outfit like a stinking slimy street gang that has no respect for our laws or the US Constituion.

    If the Feds fail to come down on Hutchens and her department like the wrath of God – this society is done – put a fork in us. We are no longer a civilized society – because when it rots at the head and those who have oversight do nothing – it’s every man for himself.

    If Hutchens and her gang who are sworn under oath to uphold the laws – break them with no remorse – then why should ordinary men and women have any respect the laws?

  • Daniel Lamb

    Hi Thy,

    Does Noberto Santana have any comment regarding his hatful comments towards the mentally ill? Will he resign? How do you feel about the comment?

    Do you remember? During the email correspondence between you, Sonya and myself this past weekend, I asked, among other things, if this operation maintains hard copies of its content that can be searched on site.

    You were instructed by Noberto Santana to “ignore this message as I think this person has mental issues.” This response was also sent to me.

    Obviously, my questions were well-grounded and Mr. Santana knows nothing about me or the state of my mental health. His statement was obviously meant as an insult, intended to deflect criticism of his operation.

    While I would never take offense to being compared to anyone with a mental illness, that is not the point. Voice of OC occupies an influential position in the community and its leaders should not denigrate the mentally ill or further the prevalence of stigma, a fact of life that harms countless individuals on a daily basis.

    Until Mr. Santana resigns, this operation should be considered an instrument of prejudice and bigotry.

    • Paul Lucas

      I think you’re over reacting

      • Daniel Lamb

        I disagree. Degrading a class of people and furthering dangerous stigma is simply unacceptable, particularly from a person in Santana’s position. My liberal friends would call it Hate Speech.

        But if that is not your bag, perhaps you could focus on, shall we say, the underlying crime. Why did Mr. Santana opt to lash out at me instead of answering very reasonable questions?

        Not only is he a bigot, but he’s operating this organization in the shadows. On both accounts, it is epic hypocrisy.

        Thanks for the reply.

        • LFOldTimer

          Look at it this way, Daniel.

          You haven’t been banned or blocked from the VOC comment board.

          Norberto could easily arrange for it.

          Since you’re still here isn’t that a positive reflection on him?

          I like Norberto. He provides a valued service to the community. And he strikes me as a fair guy.

          • Daniel Lamb

            Mr. Santana is not in a position to ban or block me from the comment board. It is run by a third-party.

            The questions I am asking are reasonable. It’s concerning that an operation principally concerned with transparency is not itself transparent.

            And attacking me personally, and in a manner that harms an entire class of people in our community, reflects a moral posture unbecoming of a publisher. He should resign.

          • LFOldTimer

            “Mr. Santana is not in a position to ban or block me from the comment board. It is run by a third-party.”

            Apparently you haven’t read the “Voice of OC’ Discussion Policy” which is only a clik away above the discussion board. This is how it reads, in part:

            “Voice of OC is not responsible for the content posted by its users.
            However, we have the right (but not the obligation) to review, screen
            and delete any content posted on our website.

            We respect your right to participate in the conversation, but we also
            reserve the right to ban any users and IP addresses that abuse and
            violate our community rules”.

            So yes, Norberto does have the option to delete posts and/or ban commenters.

            And it appears that your comments are still visible on the board.

          • Daniel Lamb

            That is a fair point, but it probably does not reflect the reality given it says nothing about the relationship between Voice of OC and Disqus. Perhaps the policy dates back to the pre-Disqus days.

            In any event, I can see why it might be in Mr. Santana’s interests to let me speak haha. Perhaps he is banking on his statement becoming profacy. lol. I can be linguistically flamboyant, even eccentric. 😅

            Nevertheless, putting forth a policy requinging your employees to ignore the concerns of people with mental illness is obviously bigoted and prejudicial. Mr. Santana should resign.

            And I don’t mind being labeled mentally ill. It does not bug me in the slightest. Just as I would not fret over being called Jewish in 1930’s Germany. I refuse to put any distance between myself and those who I feel are being mistreated.

            Mr. Santana should resign. The reputation of this organization and its backers depends on it.

          • LFOldTimer

            “Perhaps the policy dates back to the pre-Disqus days.”

            If you’d read the actual Discussion Policy you’d know that it specifically made reference to the Disqus system.

            I’ve seen very few complaints about Norberto. He’s been in business for 5 years or more so he must be doing something right.

          • Daniel Lamb

            With all due respect, the discussion policy is not at issue.

            We are talking about Voice of OC’s failure to answer basic questions as to its policies and the improper means Mr. Santana’s deployed to deflect those questions and attack the questioner.

            While the bigotry may be incidental it is nonetheless very consequential. Mr. Santana should resign.

  • verifiedsane

    https://voiceofoc.org/2017/08/judge-set-to-rule-on-whether-seal-beach-mass-murderer-faces-death-penalty/ – this is simply regurgitating the same reporting and information…..why?