The California Attorney General ended its probe into the jailhouse snitch scandal that rocked the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s office, which was first uncovered in a mass murderer’s trial over four years ago.
Deputy Attorney General Darren Shaffer said the probe ended. He made the announcement when he was in an OC Superior Court room April 19 to fight public defender Scott Sanders’ demand for AG files on potential deputy misconduct in the snitch scandal, the OC Weekly first reported. A U.S. Justice Department investigation still is ongoing.
“The Attorney General’s office has lost all credibility as a prosecutorial force here that can stand up to law enforcement,” Sanders told Voice of OC. “Prosecutors love holding criminal defendants accountable and they hate holding law enforcement officers accountable. And they really hate holding themselves accountable.”
He also said the probe is going to send a loud message to law enforcement.
“It’s a real affront to the criminal justice community here,” Sanders said. “When you do this, you really send a message to law enforcement loud and clear: That there’s nothing you can do where we’ll hold you accountable. In the end, it’s really worse they ever came in the first place. Because they emboldened those who would engage in corruption to stay on that path.”
Sanders also said if it wasn’t for Friday’s court hearing, nobody would likely have known the status of the probe.
“If we didn’t have this litigation last Friday, would the Attorney General’s office ever even told us? Probably not. If they didn’t have a court forcing them to answer that question, I don’t think they would’ve ever said anything,” Sanders said.
Sanders also said Shaffer didn’t indicate the AG’s office is going to release any information on the probe.
“It’s a complete sham,” Sanders said.
The jailhouse informant program was discovered by Sanders during the Scott Dekraai murder trial. Dekraai shot eight people to death in 2011 inside of a Seal Beach salon, including his ex-wife.
Although Dekraai confessed to the killings to law enforcement and pleaded guilty in 2014, former Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals threw out the death penalty because the Orange County Sheriff’s Department used a secret jailhouse informant to get a confession from Dekraai and the department gave the confession to the DA. County prosecutors, headed by Tony Rackauckas at the time, didn’t share the informant’s background working with prosecutors with Dekraai’s defense attorney, Sanders.
Goethals, now an appellate judge, also removed county prosecutors from the case in 2015, leaving the Dekraai prosecution to the Attorney General’s office, which was headed by now-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Los Angeles).
In a February interview with the New York Times, Harris said, “I knew misconduct had occurred, clearly it had. And it was being handled at the local level.” She didn’t say how it should be handled at the local level.
Although Harris launched a criminal probe into the DA’s office in 2015 over the jailhouse snitch program, she also appealed Goethals’ order barring the DA’s office from prosecuting the case. She lost the appeal in a unanimous decision by the 4th District Court of Appeal, where Goethals now works. The court also found “systemic problems” with the illegal jailhouse informant program.
Sanders said he’s known for years the AG investigation lacked teeth.
“I knew for at least the last two years they haven’t done anything … they should’ve announced three years ago they weren’t going to do anything. There’s no new information. Nobody’s sitting in an office and studying this stuff,” Sanders said. “They’re waiting to see this issue lose energy, but luckily we’re able to sustain it.”
The state AG office, now under Xavier Becerra, didn’t respond to questions about the probe Monday.
In May 2018, at an unrelated news conference at the Sheriff’s Department in Santa Ana, Becerra didn’t say if the office will file charges against the three sheriff’s deputies at the center of the jailhouse snitch scandal.
But he told Voice of OC the AG’s office will “go after anyone we can who we have evidence has violated the law,” including law enforcement.
“If we’re engaged in any particular investigation, you can guarantee it’s a priority … otherwise we wouldn’t be engaged in it,” said Becerra about the priority of the snitch scandal. “What we do based on that action will become more clear if we find there’s enough evidence to move forward.”
Sanders said the case should’ve been easy for the AG’s office.
“There wasn’t an investigation. You can always sit down and ask a few people a few questions and call that investigation. But this wasn’t an investigation aimed at holding any body accountable. Accountability was the easiest thing to accomplish in the world. Three officers walked into a courtroom and lied and were caught on those lies,” Sanders said.
District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who beat Rackauckas in the 2018 General Election, in February said he’s willing to settle a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the matter and the state AG probe and put the department on probation while he implements a series of reforms at the county prosecutor’s office.
Charges have been reduced or thrown out in at least seven criminal cases because of the jailhouse snitch program.
Isaac Palacios received probation after facing two gang-related murder charges because prosecutors didn’t disclose evidence obtained by jailhouse informants to Palacio’s defense attorney. Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue threw out one murder charge and Palacio agreed to a guilty plea deal for probation on the second murder charge.
Sanders said he won’t stop fighting for the records.
“We’re not going to stop fighting. We’re entitled to these records. This is what’s really frustrating … I don’t even know disappointing is a word you can use anymore on this,” Sanders said. “They ran an operation that violated inmates rights, concealed it for years — of course we should get evidence related to that conduct.”
Sanders said hope of accountability still remains with the U.S. Department of Justice, which is investigating the issue.
“They’re working very hard to analyze the evidence and figure out what the right steps are,” Sanders said. “Our hope is the (U.S.) Department of Justice at this time — that is our legitimate hope.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.