Can't OC's DAs, Public Defenders and Judges All Just Get Along?
Illustration by Bob Aul
Inside Superior Court Judge William R. Froeberg's spacious 10th-floor Santa Ana courtroom on June 20, Richard Raymond Ramirez—a silent, body-chained, convicted killer—sat peacefully, an illusion masking monstrous sensibilities. Though waiting for the penalty phase of his most recent 2013 trial for raping, sodomizing and fatally stabbing a woman 19 times outside a Garden Grove bar in 1983, Ramirez—whose earlier conviction and death row status was overturned by a federal court—disappeared as a factor on this day. Instead, a homicide prosecutor, defense lawyers, the judge and the victim's sisters clashed over the sanctity of Orange County's criminal justice system.
Froeberg is a no-nonsense man known for an often-acerbic persona and occasional, perfectly timed one-liner wit that relaxes juror tensions during stressful trials. Having served on the bench for 29 years and won senior status long ago to handle complex criminal cases, he is a favorite among prosecutors in the Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA), where his wife manages the sexual-assault unit. He has made no secret he's in his final months on the bench before retirement and, though never shy, nowadays apparently feels even more freedom to pontificate.
One floor up and directly above Froeberg is the perch of Judge Thomas M. Goethals, who sanctioned ongoing, unprecedented hearings on law enforcement's use of jailhouse informants. When public defender Scott Sanders—who represents Seal Beach salon killer Scott Dekraai—filed a 505-page brief attacking the program in February, prosecutors scoffed. One labeled Sanders' work "vile." Another questioned his decency. But four months of revelations from resistant witnesses prove the local informant system used by OCDA, sheriff's department, police agencies, FBI and Secret Service is horribly broken.
There's no accountability. There's no meaningful record keeping. One police department labels an informant untrustworthy based on extensive lying while another vouches for the same crook's credibility to win jury convictions. Defense lawyers aren't receiving potential exculpatory evidence because the information is either lost in a bureaucratic wormhole or, according to Sanders, sinisterly hidden—sometimes until after a defendant is convicted—to gain trial advantage. Perhaps worse, government officials have been flagrantly violating pretrial defendants' constitutional, anti-self-incrimination rights by secretly employing lifelong scumbags as their surrogates to make jail inquiries in exchange for benefits, according to defense lawyers.
In mid-May, following the paper trail uncovered by Sanders, public defender investigators interviewed inmate Alexander P. Frosio. The Orange County Jail snitch said he questioned Ramirez for months on behalf of the government, took notes to aid the prosecution and turned the handwritten records over to deputies. Two other inmates, Gordon F. Bridges and Billy J. Fischer, told investigators that Frosio repeatedly tried to entrap Ramirez. The plan, the men claim, was to get Ramirez to accept a stash of heroin and then Frosio would tip deputies for a cell raid, the results of which could help the government undermine mitigating evidence that the defendant had been a model inmate for years.
In the wake of that news, Ramirez public defenders Seth Bank and Mick Hill told Froeberg they wanted a delay in the penalty phase for time to obtain Frosio's missing notes as well as to explore the drug-planting assertions by Bridges and Fischer. Bank considered the developments "disturbing" because "law enforcement was using the informant to try to plant evidence on the defendant, or entice him to commit a crime that would be used against him later in the death penalty trial."
Froeberg wasn't impressed. He rejected Bank's request in late May and declared any questionable conduct by government officials in the use of informants is "irrelevant." He opined that only "the character of the defendant" matters, though Bank argued that unsuccessful efforts to entrap Ramirez directly address character evidence a future jury should know before deciding the death penalty. But Froeberg went a step further. He slammed Goethals by declaring, "This dog-and-pony show is not going to happen in my court."
With that backdrop, let's return to the June 20 Ramirez hearing. The session wasn't Froeberg's idea. He was, he said, acting "under duress" because on June 10 a California Court of Appeal ruling written by Presiding Justice Kathleen E. O'Leary ordered him to entertain Bank's request.
A low-key but persistent Bank demanded a copy of the Frosio informant file and Senior Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin refused, saying there is no file to turn over and adding that the inmates' assertions weren't credible anyway. Yellin, one of the county's top homicide prosecutors, is livid because he believes the public defender's office has unfairly tarnished his reputation by implying he's hiding evidence.
"The People have not done anything they are alleging," said Yellin, who suggested the defense is merely trying to delay the inevitable. "I'm not giving them what they are asking for . . . [Frosio] is not an informant on Ramirez . . . I don't think they are going to ever answer 'ready' on this case."
Froeberg aligned himself with the prosecutor, sarcastically asking Bank if he wanted "a Dekraai hearing."
The public defender ignored the remark and repeated his demand for the informant file. "Our position is that [Frosio] was a government informant," Bank said. "We just want to see the file for ourselves and see what is there."
This battle underscores the extent to which the informant system needs immediate reform. Yellin can be telling the truth as far as he knows, but—by all accounts—there should be a file on Frosio. Two other Orange County prosecutors, Jim Mendelson and Beth Costello, have used him in formal proceedings as a key snitch. Inside the DA's office, the right hand has no idea what the left is doing because the rules for creating an informant file are lax, arbitrary and, thus, open to abuse.
And add this fact to the mix of a flimsy system: William H. Dow, the jail employee who made $629,000 in public pay during the past three years, is the deputy who allegedly took Frosio's informant notes on Ramirez. According to court records, Dow isn't cooperating because he is in the process of being fired.
There aren't just legal considerations in the Ramirez case. The victim's sisters are justifiably frustrated. One told the judge, "Thirty years have passed [since the murder of 22-year-old Kimberly Gonzalez, a teller at Bank of America]. The pain is still there. We need closure. She was violently taken from us. Where are the rights for my sister? We just can't go through this again . . . We want him back on death row. It's not right this person is trying to buy more time. My sister has no more time."
The comments visibly touched Yellin and Froeberg. To push the case along, the judge scheduled a June 27 hearing when Frosio is scheduled to take the witness stand about his informant role. The prosecutor now wants the hearing as a way to clear his name.
"Let's find out what [Frosio's] purportedly done," said a scowling Froeberg, who couldn't resist a final observation. "It really kind of saddens me that the legal climate in Orange County has declined to this state—very disappointing."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.