Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer Wednesday announced he has reversed a decision by his predecessor and is adding some sheriff’s deputies linked to the so-called snitch scandal to a list to be turned over to defense attorneys.
When one of the deputies is called as a witness in a case, defense attorneys involved will be notified so they can use the information to impeach the credibility of the witness. Lawyers called it a Brady list, named after the landmark legal ruling that requires prosecutors to turn over all exculpatory evidence to the defense.
The deputies to be placed on a Brady list were assigned to a Special Handling Unit linked to a controversial confidential informant program that upended a death penalty case against Scott Dekraai, the worst mass killer in the county’s history. Following allegations that snitches were illegally used to amass evidence against Dekraai, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office was kicked off the case and later the death penalty was removed as an option, prompting Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to killing seven people in and around a Seal Beach nail salon, to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The issue came up last month when Spitzer revealed during an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting that his predecessor Tony Rackauckas had cleared 10 sheriff’s deputies of wrongdoing and declined to put them on the list. Spitzer brought it up as a supervisor suggested closing the Office of Independent Review, prompting Spitzer to argue that the watchdog was needed and holding up Rackauckas’ decision as one reason.
Rackauckas penned the letter Dec. 20, after he lost the election to Spitzer.
Rackauckas told City News Service in an email last month that he held dozens of meetings with his staff on the Brady list issue, but that he found there was “insufficient evidence” to put them on the list.
“My decision wasn’t made lightly,” Rackauckas said in a follow-up email to City News Service last month.
“I personally reviewed all the information including the question of whether it would be reasonable to infer that the deputies were telling any lies,” Rackauckas said. “They were not. To put them on the Brady list would be unfair to them and costly to their careers. This was not a politically motivated decision. The political advantage probably pointed the other way, but it is absolutely not proper to consider such things when deciding something so important to the individuals involved. My judgment was based on 45 years of experience reviewing reports, working with witnesses and looking at all the evidence and circumstances to make good-faith determinations about where the truth is.”
Spitzer claimed that Rackauckas made the decision “in direct conflict with the recommendation of the office’s career prosecutors,” and since the deputies were going to be called as witnesses in various cases he asked his staff to “fully brief me on the matter.”
“After an exhaustive review of the facts, I am reversing the decision …” Spitzer added.
“This is not a decision that I have made lightly,” Spitzer said in a statement. “But it is one that was made based on the facts.”
Dekraai’s attorney, Scott Sanders of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, was skeptical of Spitzer’s motivations. Sanders had lost a motion to have the District Attorney’s Office recused from prosecuting his client, Oscar Galeno Garcia, in a drug possession for sale case, but when Rackauckas’ letter surfaced Sanders was reviving the motion.
“That motion was due tomorrow,” Sanders said. “Of all the days of the year, how interesting it comes one day before we were about to file a brief asking for discovery about (the letter).”
Sanders said Spitzer can’t now claim to be a champion of the Brady rule.
“He’s invited closer scrutiny for his failure to act” earlier in his tenure since being sworn in in January, Sanders said.
“That letter should have been in our hands,” Sanders said of Rackauckas’ note.
Sanders is arguing that a deputy involved in Garcia’s arrest was in the special handling unit so he wanted to use that information to impeach his credibility as a witness.
“We lose a recusal motion and then three months later he comes out with this — that’s not praiseworthy,” Sanders said.
Spitzer did not take kindly to the criticism.
“I am going to warn Mr. Sanders to stop speculating about my actions, which he is clearly uneducated and ignorant about,” Spitzer said in a text message to City News Service. “I thought he was smarter than that.”