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Orange County’s jailhouse snitch scandal — how prosecutors and jail deputies used informants to illegally obtain evidence – has been making local and national headlines for the past few years.

In 2017, with federal and state investigations underway, the spotlight turned to the Sheriff’s Department and why it took years for the department to turn over key evidence related to informants.

Nearly two dozen Sheriff’s Department personnel – including Sheriff Sandra Hutchens – testified at a hearing that began in late May in the courtroom of Judge Thomas Goethals.

Goethals’ decision on whether or not confessed mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai received the death penalty or life in prison hinged on whether the judge believed the Sheriff’s Department turned over all the evidence he ordered disclosed in January 2013.

Dekraai, who killed eight people at a mass shooting in Seal Beach in 2011, confessed to police after the shooting and again to an informant in jail. But he was represented by an attorney when he made the jail confession and it is illegal for prosecutors to use informants against accused criminals who have lawyers. That discovery led to revelations about the use of illegal informants in additional cases, upending six other criminal convictions.

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

In May, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas went on the television news program 60 Minutes to call the notion of a sanctioned informant program a “false narrative” pushed by the Public Defender’s office.

The Orange County Grand Jury also issued a sharp rebuke to that theory in June – issuing a report that called the snitch scandal a “myth” and blaming the use of informants on “a few rogue deputies.”

Goethals fired back at the Grand Jury in his ruling in August, which threw out the death penalty for Dekraai.

“This well-established program is not a myth, nor is it any sort of fantasy, fairy tale or fable…although created and operated by word of mouth, this program has been very real for many years,” Goethals wrote in his ruling.

Here are some of the year’s top headlines in the jailhouse informants scandal.

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

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas speaks during the June 27, 2017, Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting. Credit: JOSE OCHOA, Voice of OC intern

During a segment that aired in May, Rackauckas repeatedly maintained there is no organized network of jailhouse informants.

“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.”

60 Minutes also 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.”

OC Grand Jury Wants Jailhouse Informant Hearing to Stop, Saying There’s No Widespread Violations

Orange County Grand Jury Foreperson Carrie Carmody delivers the findings and recommendations resulting from a year-long investigation into the use of jailhouse informants during a press conference at the Santa Ana Police Department on Tuesday morning, June 13, 2017. Credit: JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

In a report that stunned many following the scandal, the Orange County Grand Jury called the notion of a systemic, widespread informant program a “myth” fueled by the media, and blamed use of informants by the department on “a few rogue deputies.” It was a starkly different conclusion from the “systemic problems” with informants and evidence disclosure found by an appeals court in Nov. 2016.

Court of Appeals Says OC Prosecutors Withheld Evidence in Another Jailhouse Informants Case

Soon after the release of the Grand Jury report, the Fourth District Court of Appeal unanimously upheld a ruling that prosecutors with the Orange County District Attorney improperly withheld information from defense attorneys and misused a jailhouse informant, meaning a third trial for Henry Rodriguez, who has been convicted twice for aiding another man in the 1998 double murder of Jeanette Espeleta and her unborn child.

Rodriguez’s case is one of six murder cases that have been overturned or resulted in reduced penalties as a result of revelations in the snitch scandal.

OC Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, Embroiled in Jailhouse Snitch Scandal, Says She Won’t Seek Re-Election Next Year

Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Sandra Hutchens addresses media during a press conference June 28, 2017 after she announced the day prior that she will not run for re-election. Credit: JOSE OCHOA, Voice of OC intern

Just a week before Hutchens was set to testify in court, she announced at a press conference that she would not be running for re-election in 2018. Earlier in the day, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report alleging widespread corruption and abuse against inmates within her jails.

The week before, news broke that her coroners misidentified a dead body, leading the family of a homeless man to mourn the loss of their loved one and bury the remains, only to discover weeks later their relative was actually alive.

At the press conference, Hutchens endorsed Undersheriff Don Barnes to succeed her.

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

In a two-part series, Voice of OC looked at the testimony of 21 Sheriff’s Department witnesses during a weeks-long hearing about the Sheriff’s Department’s handling of evidence in the Dekraai case. Read part two.

Some of the key players in the department refused to testify, with seven witnesses invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, four of whom were granted immunity from prosecution and were forced to testify.

No Death Penalty For Seal Beach Mass Murderer Scott Dekraai, Judge Rules

Judge Thomas Goethals reads his sentencing decision in the Scott Dekraai murder trial, striking the death penalty as a possible sentence, during a hearing on Friday, August 18, 2017. Credit: JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

After hearing weeks of testimony from Sheriff’s Department officials, Goethals issued a sharp rebuke of the Sheriff and District Attorney for “chronic obstructionism” and failures to turn over evidence to his court.

“The truth is, for whatever reason, the [Orange County Sheriffs Department] has consistently responded to this court’s lawful orders with such indolence and obfuscation that this court has lost confidence that it can ever secure compliance from the prosecution team with those orders,” Goethals said.

Those failures to comply, he ruled, mean Dekraai cannot receive a fair jury trial to determine his sentence. As punishment for the prosecution team’s misconduct, Goethals threw out the death penalty entirely.

It effectively blocked attempts by the California Attorney General, which took over prosecution of the case from the OC District Attorney in 2015, to pursue the death penalty at a trial.

“This well-established program is not a myth, nor is it any sort of fantasy, fairy tale or fable…although created and operated by word of mouth, this program has been very real for many years,” Goethals wrote in his ruling.

Dekraai Sentenced to 8 Consecutive Life Terms in State Prison

Scott Dekraai is lead into the courtroom to hear sentencing decision from Judge Thomas Goethals on Aug. 18, 2017.

At an emotional hearing, the families of Dekraai’s eight victims, and survivors of the shooting, confronted him before his sentencing.

“These are the people whose lives you changed forever,” said Gordon Gallego, a stylist at the Salon Meritage who survived the shooting by barricading himself in a bathroom. “I hope they haunt you as the images you have left will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

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

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