A judge Friday threatened Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens with a contempt of court hearing if her office does not comply with his order to turn over evidence on jailhouse informants in the case against the worst mass killer in the county’s history.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals indignantly called out county attorneys for delays in turning over evidence about the handling of informants in the jails nearly four years after his initial court order compelling the discovery in the case against convicted killer Scott Evans Dekraai.
The scolding came as Cmdr. William Baker of the sheriff’s investigative services division issued a declaration touting an “exhaustive” computer records search for a so-called replacement to a “special handling log” that was recently publicly released and detailed the management of snitches in the jails.
Goethals criticized Hutchens for seeking a protective order and the redaction of hundreds of pages of new evidence turned over to the judge this month. Goethals was particularly annoyed that the county attorneys had not detailed what should be considered privileged information and said his cursory review of the information so far shows that most of it should be available to the public and Dekraai’s attorneys.
The judge said one filing from county attorneys sounded in part like a “press release.”
Goethals also scoffed at Baker’s claim of an exhaustive search of the sheriff’s records.
“When did we finally undertake this exhaustive search?” the judge said.
Documents from an internal log, released earlier this month, show that about the time Goethals issued his order for evidence to be turned over to Dekraai’s attorneys, a note was posted by sheriff’s deputies in the special handling unit to discontinue use of it and stating that a new internal accounting would be started. Baker indicated in his declaration that sheriff’s officials can find no sequel to the special handling log.
Goethals was also angered that Baker indicated in his declaration that two sheriff’s officials overseeing management of the informants backtracked on initial statements about the log and said the summaries of their accounts were “inaccurate.”
“Then he says they didn’t tell the truth or it was inaccurate — what is that?” Goethals said.
The judge noted that sheriff’s Deputies William Grover and Seth Tunstall, who testified during evidentiary hearings in the Dekraai case, had refused to speak to investigators on the advice of their attorneys.
“One of these deputies at least who I found to be lying is still wearing a badge and carrying a gun and he won’t talk about the log,” Goethals said. “What is going on over there?”
The judge then said he might consider calling Hutchens into his court to testify if the delays continue.
“The last thing any judge I know wants to conduct is a direct contempt of court hearing to any elected official,” Goethals said. “But, frankly, we’re certainly closer and closer to such a hearing.”
He added, “This court reminds all counsel and the sheriff that this court has waited nearly four years for compliance in a discovery order.”
The case against Dekraai, who went on a 2011 shooting spree at a Seal Beach beauty salon where his ex-wife worked, likely would have been done by now if not for “the gross errors of the prosecution team, which continues to this day,” Goethals said.
“The entire Orange County community has been cheated,” he said. “Those most grossly cheated are the entire community of Seal Beach and the defendant.”
Goethals said he may also call for additional evidentiary hearings such as the ones that led him to recuse the entire Orange County District Attorney’s Office from the prosecution of Dekraai, a ruling that was affirmed by appellate justices last month.
Goethals ordered county attorneys to turn over evidence they have previously given defense attorneys in the case against convicted killer Daniel Patrick Wozniak, who was sentenced to death. Those records will now be available for Goethals to review in the case against Dekraai.
Goethals also ordered county attorneys to detail what they consider should be kept under seal by Jan. 13. The rest will be turned over to defense attorneys, he said.
County attorney Kevin Dunn said part of the difficulty sheriff’s officials have run into when trying to retrieve evidence for defense attorneys on the informant program is that some deputies invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and others assert union rights against making statements on the issues at hand to their administrators.
“That is a roadblock we’re running into, which is frustrating,” Dunn said.
Sheriff’s officials believe they have turned over every bit of evidence that they could so far, Dunn said.
On Thursday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced it would conduct a civil review of the county’s handling of informants. The move was done after Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas requested that federal officials review his office to remove any clouds of suspicion of wrongdoing.
The California Attorney General’s Office, meanwhile, is weighing whether to ask the state Supreme Court to review the appellate court’s ruling affirming Goethals’ order of recusal.
Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to eight counts of murder and a count of attempted murder, is awaiting the penalty phase of his trial.
— City News Service