Did MSNBC's Saccharine Affair With OC Sheriff's Deputies Violate a Killer's Rights?

Screenshot from Lockup, Orange County Jail: Extended Stay, MSNBC, 2011
Screenshot from Lockup, Orange County Jail: Extended Stay, MSNBC, 2011

MSNBC's Lockup series--the one that sends camera crews inside jails and prisons to craft hagiographic presentations of cops and showcase the monsters and freaks housed there--came to rescue the scandal-ridden Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) in 2010. OCSD's embarrassments included the FBI arrests and convictions of the sheriff and two assistant sheriffs; a deputy caught stealing seafood and a fellow deputy lying to protect the theft; a deputy falsely accusing a motorist of intoxication to cover up a deputy-caused traffic collision; two deputies hiding exculpatory evidence, writing misleading reports and offering disingenuous testimony in a burglary case; and a deputy committing suicide when charged with raping a 12-year-old boy.

But the biggest reason for the creation of Lockup: Extended Stay Orange County is that veteran deputies doctored official logs, erased video recordings and committed perjury after inmates claimed guards enticed them to commit the grisly, 2006 sodomy and fatal mutilation of John Derek Chamberlain, a pretrial inmate. The incident generated numerous unflattering national headlines, and morale plummeted among the decent cops at the agency.

Though originally broadcast four years ago, the OC version of the series--created by 44 Blue Productions for NBC News and MSNBC--remains a hot topic inside Superior Court Judge John Conley's Santa Ana courtroom as he presides over the capital case of People v. Daniel Wozniak. The controversy isn't because the show failed to hail deputies as god-like in bravery and compassion or because the showcased inmates weren't sufficiently terrifying. In six episodes, the show achieved its mission to air nothing but positive, rehabilitating OCSD imagery.

A debate lingers, however, about whether deputies slyly used freelance Lockup producer Suzanne Ali to trample Wozniak's constitutional rights. More exactly: Did OCSD violate well-established court rules by guiding Ali to the double-murder defendant's cell in hopes of obtaining incriminating statements that would land him on California's death row at San Quentin State Prison instead of serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole?

For prosecutor Matt Murphy; one of his investigators; related OCSD deputies; Ali; and her civil lawyer, Kelli Sager, the answer is no. They insist the Lockup crew roamed the county's two major jail facilities--the central jail in Santa Ana and the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange--and out of more than 5,100 men in custody at the time, it coincidently located Wozniak, recorded him and left before his two lawyers inside the public defenders' office, Scott Sanders and Tracy Lesage, knew what happened.

According to Sager, a Los Angeles-based expert in First Amendment law and my legal counsel at the Weekly for many years, there is no proof otherwise. She argues Conley should reject efforts by Wozniak's lawyers to force Ali's surrender of notes and unpublished materials. In Sager's view, the subpoenas are an attempt "to rummage through" a journalist's files on "a fishing expedition." California's "shield law" typically blocks contempt charges against reporters who refuse to publicly disclose sources or unpublished records in court.

"[The defense subpoenas] appear to arise from a convoluted theory that someone involved in Wozniak's prosecution colluded with 44 Blue to select Wozniak for the program in an effort to obtain incriminating information," Sager told Conley. "In fact, the episode depicting Wozniak does not include anything even remotely incriminating, a fact that has not served to deter his counsel from pursuing broad-based discovery from 44 Blue and others over the past 18 months."   The perspective of Sanders and Lesage differs. They believe Sager doesn't understand the criminal-law issues at stake or the results of special, 2014-2015 evidentiary hearings in People v. Scott Dekraai that established certain high-ranking jail deputies are unapologetic liars willing to defraud the criminal-justice system at a whim. In March, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals declared jailhouse Special Handling unit deputies Seth Tunstall and Ben Garcia, who worked closely with Ali, had repeatedly committed perjury to mask alliances with informants to unethically entice Dekraai--the killer in the 2011 Seal Beach salon massacre--to talk about the crime.

In an 89-page brief filed this month, Sanders scoffed at Ali's claim that she found Wozniak without the assistance of the Special Handling unit. He says there is compelling circumstantial evidence that deputies--who aren't allowed any involvement in tricking legally represented, pretrial defendants into answering questions about their criminal charges--orchestrated the rendezvous. For example, OCSD released emails between Ali and deputies that show a prefilming coordination of potential inmate subjects, though they don't name Wozniak specifically.

"OCSD knowingly exploited an opportunity to have an agent [Ali] question the defendant and other inmates outside the presence of their attorneys," said Sanders.

To support his stance, Wozniak's lawyer outlined numerous examples of how Tunstall, Garcia and a third Special Handling deputy, Bill Grover, worked in league with Lockup to produce compelling, if heavily manufactured, "reality" television glorifying OCSD.

Unbeknownst to viewers, the deputies staged fake scenes, manipulated inmate housing for visual impacts, recklessly used confidential records as props and--with convincing sincerity--said preposterous lines to mislead the public.

Featured inmate Jeremy Bowles illustrates the point. Bowles, a Southern California gangster and prolific home-invasion robber, bragged on camera that he'd murdered more than 29 people and took delight in seeing victims quiver, hearing screams and seeing blood. The gravelly voiced Lockup narrator called the "confession" one of the series' most important accomplishments and celebrated Special Handling unit deputies as modern-day super-sleuths.

Sanders wasn't impressed. "If Ali had made another fortuitous find--this time, somehow locating Bowles without the assistance again of Special Handling--it was a prophetic selection," he said. "It allowed not only for mesmerizing television, but [also] enabled Grover and the Special Handling unit to purportedly solve 29 murders--perhaps the greatest investigative accomplishment in the history of Orange County."

But the drama--still airing in reruns--was fake. OCSD and the show concealed that Bowles was an informant working with the department at the time to win personal benefits. In fact, they helped to drape this inmate in a deceiving protective shield by allowing him to rant on camera about his lethal hatred of all snitches.

Worse, the so-called joint Lockup/OCSD achievement couldn't have been more fluff. The 38-year-old Bowles is in prison today for burglary, robbery, theft and the attempted murder of a Buena Park police officer. After the show's staff packed up and left, deputies didn't arrest him on a single murder count.

To Sager, questionable show contents are immaterial to the First Amendment dispute. She claims Sanders' subpoenas are based on "mere speculation" that Ali's records could assist the defense.

But, Sanders says, potential evidence that OCSD cheated is a key factor in the penalty phase against Wozniak. He wants the judge to inspect Ali's files because he believes the trial rights of a man facing state execution trump a reporter's qualified protections. "Proof that the OCSD directed, facilitated, and then covered up its efforts to illegally obtain statements from Wozniak--which they knew may not be introduced at the trial, but would be published to the community at large--supports an argument that the government engaged in outrageous government conduct," he said.

Conley, a former prosecutor whom Sanders is trying to recuse because of his connection to a previous informant scandal, has not announced when he will rule.

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