Photo by Yoshitaka OkadaFollowing the arrest of a suspect for the murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas appeared on national television to vouch for the righteousness of Orange County's justice system.
"I can explain to you that we don't file criminal charges against a defendant in a criminal case—and, certainly, we haven't in this case—unless we feel certain that the defendant is the person who committed the crime," Rackauckas told reporters during a July 22 press conference. "And so the filing of criminal charges has that indication to it."
In most California jurisdictions, DA's don't feel the need to argue the obvious, but this is Orange County, and our inarticulate district attorney has good reason to be defensive. It was, for example, Rackauckas' overzealous prosecution in 1981 that sent DeWayne McKinney to prison for 19 years for a murder he didn't commit. McKinney was freed in 2000 based on some of the same key exculpatory evidence that then-deputy DA Rackauckas cleverly convinced a jury to ignore.
But there is a larger irony, one missed by the mainstream media—including most notably The Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times as well as all nine local TV-news stations. Just three weeks before his Runnion press conference, Rackauckas had publicly denounced the county's justice system as a fraud.
For those of you who aren't familiar with Orange County, you might doubt my characterization, but this is a place where the bizarre is routine. Here, Republican Bob Dornan asserted that government authorities helped Democrat Loretta Sanchez steal, as he used to say, "his seat" in 1996. The media latched onto the unbelievable conspiracy theory despite an obvious problem: every official in a position to help Sanchez—the registrar of voters, the county district attorney, the secretary of state and the state attorney general—was a Republican.
Rackauckas' predicament is equally absurd. On June 26, the Orange County grand jury—a key component of the local justice system—completed an eight-month investigation and issued a bombshell, 100-page report detailing Rackauckas' incompetence, cronyism and blatant corruption. They soberly said the DA's disturbing pattern of official misconduct warrants further scrutiny.
In response, the politically conservative Rackauckas said the grand jury of 19 local, almost entirely conservative citizens was on a partisan mission to destroy him. Rackauckas was joined in the attack by much of the Republican establishment that backs him—former state party head Mike Schroeder, county GOP vice chairwoman Jo Ellen Allen, Huntington Beach Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, and the Register. Each preposterously dismissed the grand jury report as biased, even (as Schroeder put it) "unsubstantiated." Rackauckas was the harshest critic but failed to offer a single motive for such claims or provide any evidence of the grand jury's contamination. He labeled the jurors findings "false and ridiculous."
Rackauckas' outrageousness may have no limit. This is, after all, a prosecutor who secretly purchased a $600 Glock handgun for a Newport Beach businessman, a self-described longtime Mafia suspect who became friends with Rackauckas only after he announced his 1998 campaign for DA. Adding a chilling angle to the "thin blue line" code among cops, Rackauckas admitted under oath to the grand jury that he gave Patrick N. DiCarlo the gun to protect himself against Ruckauckas's own organized-crime detectives. Local cops reasonably remain horrified by the revelation.
The Rackauckas camp hopes memories of DiCarlo, the gun and the grand jury report fade quickly in the harsh light of the Runnion case. Just a few weeks ago, you couldn't catch Rackauckas anywhere near a reporter. Now, the DA can't squeeze any more media interviews into his schedule. He booked appearances on CBS Morning News, CNN's Larry King Live, NBC's Today, Fox's On the Record with Greta van Susteren and MSNBC's The Big Story with John Gibson. In each interview, he played the unequivocal cheerleader for the local criminal-justice system. Orange County, he said over and over, is a place where impartiality and honesty rule. Never did he mention his own self-serving attack on the grand jury.
"I think," he said during his July 22 press conference, "that the people of our community are very fair-minded and will be fair and even-handed with the evidence." He may also hope they have amnesia.
This is the fifth in a series of articles based on the grand jury's findings of corruption in the district attorney's office.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss OC Weekly's biggest stories. Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts