A defense attorney who uncovered an issue with sheriff’s deputies failing to book evidence ratcheted up demands for more documentation from sheriff’s officials and prosecutors, claiming the scandal was buried to help Sheriff Don Barnes’ election last year.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who represents Raymond Lopez Varelas, questioned in a motion filed Friday whether deputies or prosecutors would release information about audits that showed a systemic failure by deputies to book evidence correctly.
Barnes has downplayed the issue, saying there has been nothing to indicate a widespread problem with contamination of physical evidence such as drugs or weapons, and that in most of the cases the evidence in question was digital and photographic.
Sanders also questioned why 15 deputies, who were referred by the sheriff’s department to the District Attorney’s Office for criminal prosecution, were not at least added to a so-called Brady list of deputies who have been accused of having issues with the law requiring evidence to be turned over to defense attorneys.
The name of the list refers to a landmark case, Brady vs. Maryland, that established the requirement to turn over evidence to defense attorneys.
Prosecutors did not end up charging any of the deputies.
Sanders suspects that the deputy who arrested his client may have been a candidate for the Brady List.
Sanders demanded communications about the deputies referred for prosecution between District Attorney Todd Spitzer, his predecessor Tony Rackauckas, and Assistant District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh, who served as the head of the special prosecutions unit in both administrations that would have handled prosecution of any of the deputies.
Sanders claimed in the motion that a confidential source has identified a dozen of the deputies in question. He said a public records act request he made in August showed that the District Attorney’s Office did not have any of the deputies on its list of deputies who have been accused of having problems mishandling evidence.
Prosecutors have not turned over any evidence related to the deputy who arrested Varelas, Sanders said.
Spitzer has said he was “blindsided” by the reports of issues with the evidence bookings. Spitzer also said he would assign two prosecutors to coordinate with Barnes on reviewing the audits to determine what to do next about the issues.
Barnes said four deputies referred for criminal prosecution were fired, seven were disciplined and four internal investigations are ongoing.
Sanders questioned why the deputies were not immediately added to the Brady List.
“If you have deputies repeatedly so bad their own agency refers them for criminal investigation then they should go on the Brady List if it has any meaning,” Sanders told City News Service.
Barnes fired back in an email that “the insinuation that information regarding the evidence audit was not shared publicly due to the election is not only patently false, but unsubstantiated slanderous conjecture by the Public Defender’s Office.”
Barnes said the first audit, begun in February 2018 “was intended to identify if evidence issues existed.” When problems were found, the department “immediately took steps” to correct them and began the 15 internal criminal probes, Barnes said.
Those cases were turned over to prosecutors, starting in May 2018, Barnes said. Barnes added that “at least 18 letters from the OCDA were sent to the Orange County Public Defender’s Office before and after the election” regarding the issues with evidence.
“Any inference to the contrary is knowingly wrong and intentionally misleading,” Barnes said. “While members of the Public Defender’s Office have the luxury of utilizing conjecture and innuendo in their efforts to defend their clients, it’s imperative that our communication relies on the facts, not fiction orchestrated by the public defender.”
Sanders argued that Barnes appears more concerned about internal affairs investigations of his deputies than the due process of the defendants in his jails.
“The investigation that mattered were the ones who were in custody,” Sanders said. “You weren’t being deliberate. You were never going to tell us.”