A California prison inmate transported back to the Orange County Jail (OCJ) so he could make a special appearance today in an informant-tainted case tied to corruption inside the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) initially refused to speak on the witness stand, asserting a deputy threatened his safety.
"I know why you're here," Keith Higgins claimed an unidentified OCSD jail deputy told him yesterday after he'd been interviewed by defense lawyer James Crawford in the central jail's visitor area. "We have a thousand ways to fuck with you and when we're done with those, we have another thousand . . . You might get lost in the jail and never found again."
According to Higgins, OCJ deputies have attempted to scare and disorient him since his February 4 arrival, in part, by confiscating his glasses.
"I can't see or read without them," he told Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals. "They gave me a magnifying sheet, which is absolutely worthless."
The 67-year-old Chino State Prison inmate, who'd told Crawford he had specific information on the dirty operations an OCSD snitch used to help win a questionable murder conviction in People v. Henry Rodriguez, also claimed deputies took his prison-issued medicines and replaced them with "a handful" of drugs in the hours before he was scheduled to testify.
"They're giving me something," said Higgins. "I didn't recognize any [of those narcotics]. I want them to be analyzed . . . There was no need to give me something different."
After open court discussions between Goethals, Rodriguez attorney Crawford and Deputy District Attorney Eric Scarbrough about the quandary, Higgins eventually decided to testify about how his onetime cellmate, Michael Garrity, spent months focused on getting Rodriguez to talk about his case.
Rodriguez had been charged in the 1998 double murder of a pregnant Fullerton woman and her fetus, and was represented by a defense lawyer—two conditions that are supposed to block government agents, including their informants, from eliciting self-incriminating statements in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
With the help of Garrity, OCDA won the conviction while claiming the informant had accidentally overheard Rodriguez talk about the case.
But Higgins testified otherwise today.
"[Garrity] confirmed to me he was there to spy on the people in the cell next door to us," he explained over Scarbrough's losing objection. "He did say he was an informant and gave me a specific impression it was like a part-time job."
The prosecutor tried to weaken the answer by repeatedly asking if Garrity specifically uttered the word "informant."
The witness agreed the snitch might not have used that actual term, but added, "People say a lot of things by their actions."
Higgins also recounted how jail deputies gave Garrity extra underwear, longer shower periods, greater phone privileges and food perks.
Scarbrough scoffed at the "assumption" Garrity was a snitch based on the benefits, but Higgins—a recipient of two master's degrees before he was convicted in 2000 on lewd and lascivious act charges—had an answer.
"My own conclusion was he had something special going on with those deputies," he stated. "I have a rather sophisticated crap detector."
Oddly, the deputy DA acted as if long-hidden OCSD records, called TREDs and uncovered only recently, haven't already established that Garrity was most definitely an active jailhouse informant.
The point of whether the inmate was a snitch and the government covered up his role is paramount in Goethals' current consideration of a defense request to overturn the conviction.
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During his cross-examination, Scarbrough asked Higgins if he was having a "hard time remembering things," but expressed no concern about the alleged OCSD threat and harassment.
Mark K. Stichter, the new spokesman for the sheriff's department, told the Weekly he was unaware of Higgins' accusations, but said inmate complaints are typically channeled through his agency's supervisors who'll consider what additional steps are necessary.
Legal scholars and experts nationwide last year formally asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigative law enforcement corruption in OC.