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Legal Experts Urge DOJ To Investigate Orange County Jailhouse Snitch 'Crisis'

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 18/11/2015 Matt Ferner

LOS ANGELES -- More than three dozen former prosecutors, judges and legal experts are calling on the Department of Justice to conduct a full investigation of the Orange County District Attorney's Office and the Orange County Sheriff's Department over a jailhouse informant program that allegedly has violated defendants' rights.

"We the undersigned share a firm belief in our criminal justice system and its overall ability to produce fair and reliable results," the letter addressed to Attorney General Loretta Lynch begins. "Compelling evidence of pervasive police and prosecutorial misconduct in Orange County, however, has caused us grave concern." 

Prosecutors have been using evidence from a jailhouse informant program that violated inmates' rights to obstruct justice for what may be decades, the signees said. The fallout continues to unravel some murder cases, they wrote: All 250 prosecutors with in the OCDA office were booted from a mass murder case earlier this year; a court found that at least one prosecutor had given less than credible testimony under oath; more recently, multiple sheriff's deputies refused to testify in various criminal cases.

"It is fair to say that the criminal justice system in Orange County is in a state of crisis," the letter reads.

Multiple national and state civil rights groups signed onto the letter, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Constitution Project, as did several highly regarded members of the legal community, such as the current dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, former Los Angeles DAs and a former prosecutor of international crimes at the Hague.  

The seriousness of the alleged violations was illustrated in March, when Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals ejected the entire OCDA office from a high-profile mass murder case.

Goethals said at the time that the government had committed "significant" violations of due process and called certain aspects of the office's behavior a "comedy of errors."

The defendant in that case, Scott Dekraai, pleaded guilty last year to shooting and killing his ex-wife and seven other people in a hair salon in 2011, in what remains the largest mass murder in Orange County history. Dekraai's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Scott Sanders, unearthed violations within the county's secret jailhouse informant program, as well as internal records from the program that may have been improperly concealed for over 30 years.

It's common for law enforcement authorities to enlist informants to help bolster a case -- the tactic is perfectly legal, even when the informant receives something in exchange. But Sanders argues that in some Orange County cases, the sheriff’s jailhouse informants held recorded and unrecorded conversations with inmates who were already represented by lawyers, which is a violation of an inmate’s right to counsel. Prosecutors allegedly presented damning evidence gathered by the informants in court, but withheld evidence that could have been beneficial to the defense, which a violation of a defendant's right to due process. 

"More troubling still, this all appears to be the tip of the iceberg," the experts write in their letter.

A brief Sanders filed in October in a separate double-murder case in the county produced a pile of documents indicating that state prosecutors told Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas his office may have a jailhouse snitch problem in 1999.

The OCSD has acknowledged "deficiencies" in the policies and protocols involving jailhouse informants. Lt. Jeff Hallock, spokesman for the sheriff's department, told The Huffington Post earlier this year that the department has already taken steps to create more robust ways of documenting inmate handling.

And despite calls for a sweeping federal investigation -- including a September New York Times editorial on the subject -- Rackauckas and California Attorney General Kamala Harris remain defensive. 

Harris is seeking a reversal of Goethals' decision to boot the DA office from the Dekraai case. Rackauckas' office has assembled its own commission to investigate claims of prosecutor misconduct, but the DA has maintained that no one in his office intentionally behaved inappropriately.

"Given this state of affairs, as well as the scope of the misconduct at issue, the Department of Justice is the only entity with the capacity to conduct the investigation required," the legal experts' letter goes on to state. 

The DOJ, OCDA and OCSD did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Read the full letter below: 


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