To prevent future public embarrassment about widespread corruption in it's jailhouse informant program, the Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA) handed a sweetheart deal to an accused Santa Ana killer whose lawyers were on the verge of demanding a probe.
Isaac John Palacios walked out of the Orange County Jail a free man just before midnight on Sept. 23 after being in pre-trial custody since 2011 for the 2006 killing of Randy Adame near Mater Dei High School and a second, 2005 murder of Alberto Gutierrez, also in Santa Ana.
If OCDA officials--including prosecutor Erik Petersen--had had their way, Palacios might have been on his way to effectively serving a life sentence for the killings, but Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders discovered the case reeked of law enforcement corruption involving prosecutors, Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) cops as well as deputies inside the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD).
Sanders, the lawyer representing Seal Beach salon massacre killer Scott Dekraai, made his discoveries about the cheating known this year in special hearings conducted by Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals.
Based on those hearings, OCDA officials were forced to admit they'd failed to obey well established legal rules to win a life sentence against Leonel Vega, and decided this week to free Palacios after his lawyer, Gary Pohlson, suggested he would pursue corruption leads developed by Sanders.
Senior District Attorney Marc Rozenberg, Petersen's superior, won the honors of informing Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue and Adame's shocked sister of the office's sudden retreat.
The case represents an alarming treasure trove of law enforcement cheating. Deputies repeatedly violated Palacios' rights by employing a snitch to ask their questions after he'd been arraigned and had legal representation. Cops hid key evidence from Pohlson for years. Not to be outdone, prosecutors misled the attorney and judges about the case.
And, incredibly, all the government actors worked to nail Palacios for the Adame murder even though they had direct, contradictory information for more than four years that others might have been the shooter.
Extensive police records outlining in detail the specific identities of other suspects in the case--including their confessions to SAPD snitches like Oscar Moriel--were buried until Sanders uncovered them.
In hopes of ending his office's humiliation, Rozenberg offered Palacios an eyebrow-raising, sweetheart deal only an idiot would reject: OCDA would drop all charges for the Gutierrez murder if he pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of Adame and accepted a punishment of time served without a day in prison and probation.
Such a stunning move underscores the desperation of OCDA officials to block future inquiries into law enforcement corruption and the improper uses of ethically-challenged snitches.
"The actions of the OCDA and local law enforcement demonstrate that informants are seen as tools merely for supporting the prosecution's theory of culpability," the public defender wrote earlier this year to Goethals. "Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the prosecution hid evidence that Moriel had obtained information from other inmates that [Palacios] was not responsible for the killing of Adame."
According to police records reviewed by the Weekly, a gunman unloaded 15, 9mm shots at close range at Adame, who was sitting in a car. The victim was a member of Alley Boys and used the moniker "Goofy." Police learned that the motive had been a Delhi gang revenge killing.
Palacios' arrest in the Adame case won an Orange County Register news article that quoted a SAPD cop praising his department's detective brilliance in solving gang cases.
Susan Kang Schroeder, OCDA chief of staff, said in the wake of Goethal's special hearings that prosecutors have been forced to undergo mandatory re-training about ethical obligations regarding government records that must be released to defense lawyers.
The goal, according to Schroeder, is to "always improve the office."
In Sanders' view, there's plenty of room for improvement. He has made no secret of his feelings. OCDA's "repeated and shocking acts of misconduct" have revealed "a culture that devalues defendants and their right to a fair trial," he says. "It has been a win at all cost mentality."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
At the conclusion of Goethal's special hearings, the judge--himself a former OCDA prosecutor--said police, OCSD deputies and prosecutors lied under oath in his court to thwart Sanders' investigation, but he couldn't muster the courage to name the liars or to hold them accountable.