Over 30 criminals have escaped murder charges in recent years due to the mishandling of jail informants by Orange Deputy Sheriffs and District Attorneys, according to a new report from assistant county Public Defender Scott Sanders.
Local residents are getting their first public look at the fallout from what has come to be called the jailhouse snitch scandal, which threw out dozens of murder cases.
The public defender’s office released a new analysis today, detailing 57 felony cases that had to be thrown out or had charges downgraded stemming from the jailhouse informant program – something federal investigators said is a “systematic” violation of inmates’ rights.
“In one special circumstance murder…the person received a life sentence where he is eligible for parole,” Sanders said in a statement to Voice of OC.
“Every other defendant charged with murder, including the special circumstance murder cases, either had the murder dismissed, was acquitted of murder, or as part of a resolution received a lesser charge.”
Sheriff spokesperson Carrie Braun said their department still needed to review what cases Sanders claimed were impacted before they could speak on the issue.
The District Attorney’s office shared a statement with the OC Register and Voice of OC claiming that they already knew about these cases and had turned the information over to the federal Department of Justice.
“We have a team of prosecutors tasked with reviewing each one of these cases and ensuring all of our discovery obligations have been met, and to take any further remedial action, if necessary,” Spitzer said in the statement. “In addition, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office has expanded the role of our Conviction Integrity Unit by adopting a policy to review any wrongful conviction claim.”
But Spitzer has also publicly complained about the amount of funding the public defender’s office gets to re-litigate cases, and he publicly called for county supervisors not to approve a $4 million grant last March.
“Post conviction work is off the charts for the courts. And post conviction work for the District Attorney’s office is unbelievable,” Spitzer said at the time. “This grant money looks free, but it has tremendous financial implications for the county.”
The county Sheriffs’ Department and District Attorney have faced investigations for over a decade now for their jail informant program, which saw certain defendants in high profile cases put in jail next to paid informants, who then interrogated them without their lawyers present.
Last year, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation publicly concluded the program “systematically violated criminal Sixth Amendment right to counsel and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law.”
Those failures impacted numerous high profile cases, including confessed mass murderer Scott Dekraai, who was only able to receive life in prison rather than the death penalty due to how the DA and sheriff’s department mishandled his case after he shot up a Seal Beach salon in 2011 and killed eight people.
But a new list from Sanders includes dozens of other cases that weren’t previously known to have been impacted.
Altogether, they found 57 felony cases that were impacted by the snitch scandal, nearly two thirds of which were murder cases.
“First degree murder and second degree murder carry life sentences, which means there is no guarantee of being paroled,” he continued. “Nearly all of these defendants received a manslaughter or other lesser charge that guarantees their release.”
Some of the murder cases identified by Sanders were thrown out altogether, with prosecutors forced to drop the charges in cases like that of Paul Smith, who was convicted of murder but had his conviction thrown out after it came to light that was improperly interrogated.
He’s currently awaiting a new trial.
Isaac Palacios, who was originally charged with two murders and a series of other charges, ultimately pleaded guilty to one murder while all his other charges were dismissed – he served just over seven years in prison before being released on five years of probation according to court records.
But in most cases, the defendants pleaded guilty to lower charges like manslaughter, such as in the case of Joel Avila, who, according to Sanders’ report, was charged with murder but ultimately pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served six years in prison.
Heriberto Calvillo was interrogated by two jailhouse informants, who were each paid $600 according to the public defender’s report, and he initially pled guilty to manslaughter and got 22 years in prison.
After the news of the snitch scandal broke, the charge of manslaughter against him was dismissed, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of robbery to serve six years in prison.
Other cases ended more like Dekraai’s, with defendant Jose Canul pleading guilty to murder but only receiving life in prison rather than the death penalty enhancements, which according to records were dropped.
Ricardo Lopez was originally sentenced by a jury to over 50 years in prison when he was convicted of murder – but he was later resentenced to just 25 years in prison after it came out that an unpaid jailhouse informant had interrogated him without his lawyer present according to Sanders’ report.
Other felony charges that were dropped altogether or downgraded in Sanders’ report included conspiracies to commit murder, assaults, gang charges, firearm charges and more.
Many of those other felony cases included former Special Handling Deputy Seth Tunstall, who refused to testify at their trials regarding the snitch scandal, invoking his Sixth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, and later retired from the sheriff’s department, according to records.
In multiple cases where Tunstall refused to testify, Sanders noted the defendants saw their charges suspended, reduced or thrown out and walked out on probation without ever having to serve a day in prison after they were initially charged with aggravated assaults, conspiracy and other gang charges.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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