On the same day that national legal scholars urged a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Orange County's law enforcement corruption and a tone-deaf district attorney's office spokeswoman reacted contemptuously, a superior court judge yesterday erased a murder conviction after determining sheriff's deputies conspired to violate the defendant's constitutional rights.
Judge Richard King's ruling in People v. Eric Ortiz is the latest proof that, despite District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' insistence otherwise, the county's corruption crisis isn't imaginary, but rather one with obvious embarrassing consequences.
It's the 13th example in less than a year of blatantly unethical prosecution team moves wrecking a felony case while not a single involved person with a badge has been held accountable.
Two more tainted trials--People v. Henry Cabrera and People v. Henry Rodriguez--could be added to the list in coming months.
The Weekly advised its readers about the pending Ortiz nightmare for Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens in Oct. 8 and Oct. 14 news reports. At the time of the January 2014 special circumstances murder conviction, the case outwardly appeared to be an example of textbook professional policing and prosecuting. But revelation after revelation proved law enforcement cheated. Government officials hid exculpatory-type evidence, used highly questionable informant testimony, doctored records and trampled a suspect's constitutional right against self-incrimination by orchestrating a secret scheme to entice Ortiz to talk while pretending he'd spoken without their conniving.
The list doesn't end there. Four sheriff's deputies--Seth Tunstall, Ben Garcia, Bryan Larson and Bill Grover--refused in October to answer questions posed by Ortiz lawyer Rudy Loewenstein about their jailhouse conduct because they fear perjury or obstruction of justice charges.
Tom Domiguez, boss of the union representing sheriff's deputies, has acted as if the public shouldn't be alarmed by the irony that these officers employed their constitutional right against self-incrimination.
"They do not lose those constitutional protections when they pin on the badge," Dominguez in recent weeks told the Orange County Register's Kelly Puente and Tony Saavedra.
Right, but pinning on a badge is supposed to signal an unwavering commitment to ethical conduct.
King, a former prosecutor and Rackauckas colleague, nailed the correct stance.
"The issue is simple," the judge wrote in his Ortiz ruling. "Sworn police officers were called to the witness stand to answer questions about what they were doing while they were working as police officers. When all of them refused to testify, the defendant was thereby denied the opportunity to question them about alleged [constitutional] violations . . . Thus, the court has concluded that relevant and material evidence in the possession of law enforcement has become unavailable to the defendant, depriving him of a fair hearing."
Rackauckas and Hutchens should take serious note of the situation. Their jobs aren't supposed to be about winning cases at all cost or defending unethical behavior through shameless denials and lame PR moves blaming the media for manufacturing a fake crisis. The public expects them to run ethical operations--not occasionally but every single day. Is that hope too difficult to fulfill? If so, it's time for new leadership at OCDA and OCSD.
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