U.S. Department of Justice officials announced Tuesday they have closed an 11-year investigation into Orange County’s jails, a probe that began following the in-custody stomping death of inmate John Chamberlain in October 2006.
Still open is a Justice Department investigation of the District Attorney’s Office and sheriff’s department over the jailhouse informant scandal stemming from the case against Scott Dekraai, the worst mass killer in the county’s history.
The civil pattern-or-practice investigation of the use of informants in the jails and in trials began in December 2016. Dekraai’s attorney alleged that the constitutional rights of inmates were systematically abused in the informant program.
“We have been fully cooperative, transparent, and participatory with the DOJ regarding their investigation into the informants,” Sheriff Don Barnes said. “We are looking forward to bringing that to a resolution as well.”
Barnes and Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer have both been in Washington recently to discuss the probe with federal prosecutors.
The conclusion of the investigation around the 41-year-old Chamberlain’s killing comes amid a sprawling lawsuit against the sheriff in federal court alleging an array of issues such as a failure to provide proper medical care, attacks on inmates, the use of chains while transporting inmates from jail to court and a phone scandal blamed on a software glitch update that allowed improper recording of confidential calls from inmates to their attorneys.
In the Chamberlain case, five inmates were convicted of second-degree murder for their part in the death of Chamberlain, who they wrongly thought was a child molester. Chamberlain was actually in custody on suspicion of child pornography, and defense attorneys for the inmates in the trial argued the inmates were tipped about that, which they said sparked the beat down that occurred just 68 feet away from an enclosed guard station.
One deputy at the time was accused of watching the Fox Broadcasting alternative series “Cops” and text-messaging during the beating, which took place in a blind spot, according to a grand jury probe.
The Justice Department cited a series of changes the sheriff’s department has implemented to address the issues in its move to close the case, including:
— a new system of classifying inmates so they can have more access to recreation and inmate programs to help them when they get out;
— upgrades to cells to better help inmates with mental health and substance abuse issues;
— more services for veterans to help them take advantage of programs earmarked for them by Veterans Affairs and other organizations;
— new procedures for releasing inmates during daylight to cut down on nighttime attacks, especially for women inmates;
— more “robust” programs to help inmates when they are let out that are aimed at cutting down recidivism; and
— stepped-up security to stem the tide of drugs smuggled into jail.
“Department of Justice attorneys, with the assistance of subject-matter experts, had the opportunity to see these efforts first hand during multiple site visits. I want to thank the DOJ for valuing collaboration among federal agencies, national partners, and local law enforcement in bringing this issue to resolution,” Barnes said.
“The announcement ending the investigation speaks to the tremendous work that has been accomplished by custody staff of both our department and the Orange County Health Care Agency. The conclusion of the Department of Justice’s investigation further demonstrates that our jail system is one that meets our responsibility to provide necessary care and protection to inmates incarcerated within Orange County jails.”