By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Rackauckas Doesn’t Blink
Under pressure from Sheriff Hutchens and the deputies’ union, the DA stands by his men and women who accused deputies of lying on the stand
The May 12 event at the district attorney’s office may have looked like a press conference, but it was really a test of wills.
During and after their unsuccessful prosecution of an alleged rogue sheriff’s deputy for excessive force, attorneys with the DA’s office accused five other deputies involved in the case of lying under oath to protect their colleague.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who thought her agency had been unfairly slimed, wanted a clarification. Police officials from around California wanted an apology for smearing the reputation of cops in general. The local deputies’ union wanted Susan Kang Schroeder, a prosecutor and the DA’s top spokeswoman, fired.
DA Tony Rackauckas’ response? With a defiant calm, he not only backed up his people, but he also worried aloud that his spokeswoman is the target for retaliation because she complained in the media about a “code of silence” inside the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD).
“We’re shedding the light of day on these activities,” Rackauckas, a former superior-court judge, told more than a dozen reporters and television news cameras at his Santa Ana headquarters. “What I usually get from police officers is solid, truthful testimony. . . . Would I like to see officers off the force who lied? Absolutely. It’s just a bad thing all around.”
Rackauckas, not a man who normally relishes conflict, repeatedly stated that he believes most police officers are honest, that his relationship with Hutchens is fine, and that concerns about deputies testi-lying pertain solely to how deputies behaved in the case of People v. Deputy Christopher Hibbs.
“The ‘code of silence’ phrase we used was meant just to apply to this one case,” Rackauckas said. “We’re not suggesting an agency-wide code of silence. I want to make that clear.”
For years, critics have accused Rackauckas of ignoring law-enforcement corruption, but the Hibbs case so infuriated the DA that he refused to apologize for taking the deputy to court. Hibbs faced felony excessive-force charges for twice firing a Taser into the right thigh of a handcuffed suspect sitting in the back of his patrol car in September 2007. Five deputies—Trent Hoffman, Robert Long, Bryan Thomas, Robert Gunzel and James Wicks—went “sideways,” or sabotaged the prosecution from the witness stand, according to Rackauckas.
“It’s really clear in this case we got an 11-1 vote for acquittal because these deputies changed their testimony,” the DA said.
To bolster the point, Mike Lubinski, an assistant district attorney in charge of special assignments, spent 45 minutes (he could have gone twice as long) meticulously detailing in a PowerPoint presentation how deputies had either lied under oath during trial or developed sudden, severe cases of amnesia about what they’d told the grand jury that indicted Hibbs. At the grand jury, most deputies were precise about their details implicating Hibbs. At trial, dozens and dozens of times, they cumulatively uttered, “I don’t recall” or, “I don’t remember.”
Lubinski’s charts illustrated the ridiculousness of the tactic. For example, Hoffman claimed he had a hazy recollection of officers in a locker room laughing about Hibbs using his Taser on a restrained suspect. But, even though Hoffman was mere feet away from the actual incident and on duty, he testified that he had not seen or heard anything.
As the lone reporter who interviewed members of the jury after the trial, I can report that the deputies’ testimony for Hibbs was a critical factor in many of them voting to acquit. Indeed, the jury foreman—a vocal Hibbs vote during deliberations—told me he was surprised that the DA’s office had called Hibbs’ colleagues to the witness stand.
“All those deputies let me think there was reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case,” he said. “They all helped Hibbs.”
It’s odd that the case has sparked a feud between the DA and the OCSD. Sheriff’s officials were the ones who reported Hibbs to Rackauckas’ office after they put him on paid administrative leave and recommended he face felony prosecution. Stacy Lang, a veteran sheriff’s homicide detective, sat next to Deputy District Attorney Israel Claustro throughout the trial. Claustro also had pretrial cooperation from a sheriff’s lieutenant, a captain, a sergeant and internal affairs.
So much for a solid thin blue line, I guess.
In the aftermath of Rackauckas’ press conference, Hutchens told me she’s satisfied with the DA’s explanations about the “code of silence” line and only one task remains.
“What we have to determine is whether [inconsistencies in the deputies’ testimony] were intentional acts or just not remembering, and I can’t speculate on an answer,” the sheriff said. “After our internal-affairs investigation, we’ll determine the facts and, if necessary, take appropriate disciplinary action.”