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Despite much-publicized challenges to the use of jailhouse informants in Orange County, there is no evidence of a “structured” snitch program in the jails, and allegations of collusion between prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies to violate defendants’ rights are “unfounded,” according to a grand jury report released Tuesday.

The Orange County Grand Jury found that while the use of in-custody informants does occur in some criminal cases, “it is generally organic in nature, case specific and does not represent a conspiracy between the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County District Attorney’s Office.”

In the 28-page report, the grand jury conceded there have been “discovery violations in a small number of cases” and there have been instances of “lax supervision” that have resulted missteps by prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies, leading to an “erosion of trust in the criminal justice system.”

Despite those shortcomings, both the District Attorney’s Office and sheriff’s department “have implemented organizational changes to repair the damage.”

“The grand jury found no definitive evidence of a structured jailhouse informant program operating in the Orange County jails,” according to the report. “Allegations of intentional motivation by a corrupt District Attorney’s Office and a conspiracy with a corrupt sheriff’s department to violate citizens’ constitutional rights are unfounded. Disparate facts have been woven together and a combination of conjecture and random events have been juxtaposed to create a tenuous narrative insinuating nefarious intent.

That narrative does not stand up to factual validation,” according to the report.

The report notes that the use of jailhouse informants is not unique to Orange County, where the “use of informants mirrors that of jurisdictions across the nation.” It also cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found the use of informants can be “a valuable tool in `society’s defensive arsenal.”‘

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, the attorney for Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to eight counts of murder and one count of attempted murder for carrying out the worst mass killing in the county’s history, filed a 500-page-plus motion in early 2014 alleging widespread abuse of informants in the county jails to help prosecutors win cases.

The allegations snowballed as Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals ordered evidentiary hearings that led to the judge removing the District Attorney’s Office from the case. The state Attorney General’s Office took over the case and is continuing to pursue the death penalty for Dekraai, who killed eight people inside and outside the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach in October 2011.

The allegations about misuse of jailhouse informants have also compelled prosecutors to cut deals with several other defendants, including one killer who was released from custody.

Goethals is presiding over a third round of evidentiary hearings to determine whether he should dismiss the death penalty as an option for Dekraai because of the county’s failure to turn over evidence in the case.

The sheriff’s department’s public information officer, Lt. Lane Lagaret, was testifying Tuesday in the hearings. Goethals also wants Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to testify in the case this month.

Reacting to the grand jury report, Sanders slammed the panel, saying its members appeared to be unaware of many cases of abuses involving informants within the jail. To conclude there is no systemic corruption is “insulting to Judge Goethals and to the Court of Appeal,” Sanders told reporters.

“They simply did not know enough” about the jailhouse informant system, Sanders said.

Sanders said he met with the grand jury in January for about four and a half hours and found the experience “pretty disappointing.” He said that when he tried to explain various examples of misconduct, “they were at a complete loss” and he was “met with blank stares.”

“I couldn’t even get them to talk about the cases,” Sanders said.

Sanders believes the grand jury met with prosecutors and essentially fell under their spell and by the time they spoke with him, “I knew it was done.”

Sanders contends he can show a pattern of misconduct going back to the 1980s. He said the grand jury report is an “odd contrast” with the appellate court ruling, saying he fears the grand jury report will be used by sheriff’s investigators and prosecutors to say they did nothing wrong.

Carrie Carmody, the foreperson of the grand jury, said it is fair to say the grand jury reached a different conclusion than the appellate justices because the grand jury took a more global view of the informant issue than the appeals court, which focused only on whether Dekraai would get a fair trial from the District Attorney’s Office.

The Attorney General’s Office is conducting an investigation of the allegations of misconduct in the use of informants. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is conducting a civil review of the misconduct allegations.

The grand jury made a number of recommendations, including changes to record-keeping procedures to avoid problems with exchanging evidence with defense attorneys, and improved training for prosecutors and investigators so they don’t violate the rights of defendants.

The grand jury also recommended that the District Attorney’s Office “review their management and communication to improve inter-office communications and break down the negative effect of silo-ed operations.”

Part of the problem, the grand jury found, was a lack of training for supervisors in the District Attorney’s Office.

“The elevation of personnel in the OCDA to supervisory positions is not the result of standardized, objective hiring standards and does not include any required training in management or supervisorial skills training,” the grand jury found.

The grand jury also wants the Board of Supervisors to consider firing an “independent monitor” because it is a “waste of county money.”

The grand jury also found that other law enforcement agencies other than the sheriff are the “weak link” in the “prosecution team,” and the district attorney should “use the bully pulpit to raise awareness of the problem and encourage participation and commitment to proper legal standards.”

Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents District Attorney’s Office investigators and sheriff’s deputies, said the report validates the union’s stance that the issues are due to poor training of deputies. He said at least two sheriff’s deputies involved in the Dekraai litigation face firing and he called on Hutchens to reconsider that action in light of the grand jury report.

Hutchens’ office issued a statement saying the report validates her past comments about informants. She said the panel was correct in saying it is more appropriate for the attorney general and U.S. Attorney to continue delving into the issue, not the way Goethals is doing with the latest round of evidentiary hearings.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office issued a five- page statement claiming the grand jury report “debunks phony news of prosecutorial corruption.”

“They issued a well-researched and fact-driven report in which each piece of evidence was triple-corroborated and reviewed by subject matter experts,” Rackauckas said.

His office claimed the “controversy was created by a public defender desperate to spare a mass murderer the death penalty after the OCDA secured the guilty plea and, at a minimum, a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The media, despite being presented with the truth on multiple occasions by the OCDA, reported whatever the public defender said, which was then parroted by law professors and retired politicians without doing any investigation.”

—City News Service

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