Complaining about continued "mind boggling" and "incomprehensible" record games by Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens in a death penalty case, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals today declared he is pondering contempt findings plus a $10,000 fine against her.
Hutchens and her command staff, who have spent nearly 35,000 hours defying Goethals' January 2013 discovery orders in People v. Scott Dekraai largely by hiding massive caches of key records, provided him 5,659 pages of evidence in December.
But the judge called the latest batch of tardily surrendered records "a document dump" he suspects was designed to frustrate finding additional evidence of wrongdoing that would embarrass Hutchens and her department in Orange County's jailhouse informant scandal.
"I'm disappointed this is the tactic the sheriff has elected to take," Goethals announced.
The snitch scandal centers on deputies operating illegal jail scams to aid prosecutors win untold numbers of criminal cases, hiding evidence of those scams and committing perjury to coverup both underhanded strategies—all of which Goethals as well as the California Court of Appeal have recognized as ugly, indisputable facts.
In hopes of preventing Dekraai attorney Scott Sanders—the person who discovered the scandal—from gaining access to all of the new records, Hutchens claimed apocalyptic-like results in the jails if her secrecy demands weren't accepted.
"It just boggles my mind," Goethals said of the assertion. "I just hardly know what to make of virtually all of the claims [for secrecy]."
He ordered documents released to Sanders within seven days and promised the sheriff's stonewalling tactics would not dissuade him from "finding the truth" about law enforcement shenanigans in the five-year-old case that's won national attention and prompted a formal U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
"It doesn't seem like I'm getting my message across [to Hutchens]," Goethals said.
Allowing Sanders and Sara Ross, his co-counsel, access to the records guarantees future revelations of corruption, a point the judge previewed by reading from two previously hidden sheriff's department emails blatantly discussing the illegal use of informants against unwitting pretrial defendants who have been charged with a crime and have legal counsel.
Kevin Dunn, a lawyer in the county counsel's office, tried desperately, as he has in the past, to label Hutchens' search for responsive records as "diligent," but the line isn't just unpersuasive anymore; it's laughable.
Just ask the judge, a former prosecutor.
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"Good God," Goethals said. "What is going on over [at the sheriff's department]?"
His concerns extend to potential deputy destruction of informant-related records, a scenario he said would land people "in jail."
A stern-faced judge added, "This is serious business, folks,"
The next round in the saga begins on Feb. 10 with the California Attorney General's office formally taking over penalty phase duties in Dekraai from Tony Rackauckas' district attorney's office, which was booted from the case for a perceived inability to exercise basic ethical standards.