In a report released Tuesday, a grand jury found that the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the OC Sheriff’s Department were not guilty of systemic prosecutorial misconduct involving jailhouse snitches. In response to the report, the assistant public defender who uncovered the the ongoing scandal said the grand jury just didn’t look hard enough at the information before them.
The DA’s office and sheriff’s department have been accused of housing inmate informants close to defendants in order to procure confessions (in exchange for reduced sentences and other forms of compensation), as well as withholding evidence from defendants.
Directing inmates to obtain incriminating statements from defendants is a violation of the 6th Amendment right to an attorney during questioning.
The grand jury’s report called allegations of a systemic effort on the part of the DA’s office or sheriff’s department to run an organized snitch program simply “myth.” The high profile snitch scandal can be attributed to widespread media attention, as well as “finger pointing and speculative rhetoric,” according to the grand jury report.
The grand jury found that there were prosecutorial violations in “a small number of cases.” And prosecutors did utilize in-custody informants, although the grand jury found the occurrences to be “generally organic in nature,” rather than indicative of a corrupt system.
“Both the Orange County District Attorney and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department allowed employees to drift from the core organizational mission of their agencies and this lax supervision has unfortunately resulted in the erosion of trust in the criminal justice system,” the report said.
The alleged prosecutorial misconduct has unraveled more than a dozen murder cases going back decades.
Citing “chronic failure” to hand over exculpatory evidence to the defense, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals removed the entire DA’s office from the sentencing phase of mass shooter Scott Dekraai’s high-profile capital murder case.
(For a deeper look at the backstory of the ongoing snitch scandal, we recommend this 2015 ABC7 story by Marc Brown and Lisa Bartley.)
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders first brought news of an Orange County informant program to light when he was appointed to represent Dekraai. Sanders told 60 Minutes he learned of the informant’s identity, and found that the man had three strikes against him and was desperately seeking a reduced sentence.
Sanders says he was “stunned” when another of his clients facing the death penalty confessed to the same jailhouse informant. “That realization is what propelled us forward,” Sanders said on 60 Minutes.
According to the report, the jurors spent more than 3,500 man hours, read more than 40,000 pages of documents, and conducted more than 150 interviews during their investigation.
However, following the release of the grand jury report, Sanders told the OC Register’s Tony Saavedra that the jurors did not probe deeply enough into the cases and information available to them.
“I’m bringing up cases, I’m bringing up names, I’m bringing up the informant index—and I’m being met with blank stares,” Sanders said of the grand jury.
While the grand jury has found the DA and Sheriff to be free from blame in the jailhouse snitch scandal, there are still two ongoing investigations by the California Attorney General and the US Department of Justice.
Just one day after the grand jury’s report, in a special hearing, a former sheriff’s lieutenant who oversaw the jail’s “Special Handling Unit” told a story that contradicted the grand jury. Catherine Marie Irons testified that she took part in formalizing the jail informant program around 2012. According to Irons, sheriff’s department supervisors put together a plan to track and help their informants (as well as those brought in by other law enforcement agencies). Inmates wore recording devices meant to capture their conversations with targeted inmates.
Image and video: Orange County District Attorney’s Office.