Death Penalty Judge Gives OC Sheriff Last Chance To Stop Hiding Evidence
In another stunning display of arrogance at a hearing today, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens continued to defy a California Superior Court judge and his discovery orders issued 197 weeks ago in a pending death penalty case, People v. Scott Dekraai.
The sheriff’s stonewalling prompted more expressions of exasperation by an already exasperated Judge Thomas M. Goethals, who once again asked, “When should I expect compliance?”
Hutchens didn’t attend the hearing but instead sent, as is her custom, other government bureaucrats to insist she doesn’t know what all the fuss is about because she is “exhaustively searching” for responsive records.
According to the County Counsel's D. Kevin Dunn, who was obviously uneducated about the history of the case, the sheriff is “undertaking a diligent search” and might be “very, very close” to surrendering the evidence.
“I don’t think the sheriff’s department is playing any games,” Dunn said. “There is no attempt to obfuscate.”
Hutchens’ feigned righteousness masks corruption that has become known nationally as the Orange County jailhouse snitch scandal and sparked calls for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into systemic constitutional violations. Time and again, deputies have lied about the existence of massive caches of “TRED” and “Special Handling Log” records. Now, there’s a third records system that has been buried.
The reason for the secrecy isn’t a mystery. The evidence likely contains further proof that the sheriff’s department conducted illegal operations with jailhouse snitches to secretly aid prosecutors. To date, at least 15 murder and attempted murder cases have been tainted.
Shattering Hutchens’ assertion that 197 weeks hasn’t been long enough to figure out what records exist in her paramilitary government agency, Goethals also today reconfirmed what Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s lawyer, announced last month: “Hours or days” after prosecutor Dan Wagner quietly alerted the sheriff’s department on January 22, 2013, that the judge was likely going to force surrender of key records, jail deputies met and decided to end what was labeled the “Special Handling Log."
Here's the controversial entry: "A Special Handling meeting was held with sergeants Ramirez and Wert. Numerous topics were discussed. One of the biggest changes will be concerning this log. It will NO LONGER BE A LOG, but rather a document of IMPORTANT INFORMATION SHARING ONLY. [Deputies' emphasis.]"
Sanders believes that Log entry—one an adamant Hutchens didn’t want the public to see—underscores the sheriff’s willingness to play unethical games in hopes of defying discovery orders with the concocted plausible deniability claim that the unnamed records system wasn’t specifically identified by the judge as a search target.
"This is a completely unnecessary informant scandal," Sanders told the Weekly. "The sheriff's department as well as the district attorney's office, whose leaders speak passionately about victims' rights, unquestionably had many who cared little about the victims' loved ones here as long as the defense could be blamed for stalling and the jailhouse informant scandal remained hidden. If Hutchens had simply complied with the court order in 2013 and turned over the Special Handling Log, then none of these delays would have happened . . . This sheriff's department deserves absolutely no trust."
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Meanwhile, over Dunn’s objection, Goethals decided not to place a protective order on redacted portions of the “Special Handling Log” entries he’ll provide Sanders this afternoon, but is giving Hutchens an opportunity to seek an appellate reversal of his ruling by Nov. 18.
“The people have a right to know what the government is doing,” he stated.
But Goethals called Sanders demand to question jail deputies and the sheriff under oath today about the log naming scam “premature,” though he suggested future evidentiary hearings are a possibility.
Hutchens’ next formal opportunity to obey the aging court order will be a scheduled Dec. 16 hearing.
The Dekraai case has been in appellate court limbo since March 2015, when the judge found that Hutchens’ deputies repeatedly committed perjury and he tossed the entire district attorney’s office from the case because of ethical concerns.
A three-justice panel at the California Court of Appeal is expected to rule within about 70 days.
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