Perhaps you've been reading my colleague R. Scott Moxley's exhaustive (and award-winning) coverage of the Orange County Jail informant scandal, which has already resulted in reversed convictions, cases dropped due to embarrassment and the possibility that the worst mass killer in county history may avoid the death penalty. Something else the mess has led to: the Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA) announcing Monday the formation of "a new independent, external committee" to "thoroughly examine OCDA policies and practices regarding the use of jailhouse informants."
"I think it's important to have an objective and expert external committee, with different points of view, to thoroughly review and analyze the issues regarding the use of in-custody informants so we can improve our procedures and avoid any future mistakes," says District Attorney Tony Rackauckas in a statement from his office. "I want the public, the bench, and the bar to know that our prosecutions of murderers and violent criminal street gang members are tough but fair."
The announcement comes nearly four months after a judge removed Rackauckas' office from prosecuting Scott Evans Dekraai, who confessed to and was convicted of the Seal Beach salon massacre. Attorneys for Dekraai, who pleaded guilty in May of last year, filed a lengthy motion early last year requesting the death penalty removed as an option for prosecutors due to the illegal use of jailhouse informants. Instead, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethal removed Rackauckas' office from prosecuting the death penalty phase of Dekraai's trial, turning it over to the California Attorney General's office.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who represents Dekraai, accused investigators of lying about how government informant Fernando Perez was placed in a cell next to the mass killer, who Perez claims would "brag" about the Oct. 12, 2011, massacre of Dekraai's ex-wife and seven others in and around Salon Meritage. Sanders has also raised the alleged improper use of informants in the multiple murder case against another of his high-profile clients, Daniel Patrick Wozniak, who is also facing the death penalty. Prosecutors deny anything was done unethically or illegally in the Wozniak case, since Perez was not yet a government informant when he befriended Wozniak and solicited incriminating statements.
Sanders told City News Service he is skeptical the new Informant Policies and Practices Evaluation Committee (IPPEC) will lead to improvements in the system.
"I have enormous respect for those who would give their time to try to improve the situation moving forward," Sanders said. "But, of course, there remains the enormous problem of addressing decades of potential informant-related misconduct and evidence concealment, which is beyond the scope of this committee's review.
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"The other issue is that the law regarding informants and evidence disclosure has been well settled and understood for decades," Sanders continued. "Those laws have been ignored because of a culture that overvalues winning, and changes in procedures--although welcomed--will not remedy this fundamental problem. Unfortunately, what I continue to experience on the ground is the OCDA continuing to minimize what has been learned, while portraying prosecutors and members of law enforcement as the victims."
Members of the new IPPEC are retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Smith, retired Los Angeles County Assistant District Attorney Patrick Dixon, former Orange County Bar Association President Robert Gerard and Blithe Leece, who was described by Rackauckas as a specialist in ethics law and professional responsibility. Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson will serve as an adviser for the committee.
The panel has already begun its investigation and plans to release a detailed report by the end of 2015, with recommendations to improve the current use of in-custody informants. The OCDA's own investigation resulted in policy and personnel changes, including: new leadership and personnel; additional staff in the Gang Unit; a new internal committee headed by Rackauckas to review and approve or disapprove the use of an in-custody informant in a criminal case; and an updated informant policy manual to establish new guidelines for the use of informants.