Are Orange County Sheriff's Deputies Hiding More Evidence In Jailhouse Snitch Scandal?

A new court record outlines apparent perpetual dishonesty among Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) officials willing to conduct and then cover up illegal operations, and equally perpetual eagerness of local prosecutors to tolerate perjury committed by deputies.

That record, a 10-page Aug. 4 letter from Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders to deputy district attorneys Dan Wagner and Scott Simmons, details a history of OCSD evasiveness in obeying court ordered discovery and renews demands for production of evidence still hidden in People v. Scott Dekraai, the nearly five-year-old stalled death penalty case.

Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals recused District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and his entire office from Dekraai in 2015, determining the agency couldn't be trusted to behave ethically.

Rackauckas, who refuses to concede a single ethical lapse, tried to portray Goethals, a well-respected former high-ranking prosecutor, as a loon. He successfully lobbied California Attorney General Kamala Harris to appeal the recusal despite ample evidence of law enforcement corruption in the case and dozens more. A state court of appeal based in Santa Ana is currently studying the issues.

Meanwhile, Sanders—the public defender who exposed the government's systemic, illegal use of jailhouse informants to violate pre-trial defendants' constitutional rights—is demanding that Wagner and Simmons surrender to Goethals additional buried records of OCSD's multi-year "conspiracy" to "obstruct justice."

At the heart of the dispute are cheap bureaucratic tactics. During special evidentiary hearings in Dekraai, veteran, special handling deputies Ben Garcia and Seth Tunstall testified they were not aware of any department records that would explain their movements of inmates, asserting prolific jail snitches Fernando Perez and Oscar Moriel miraculously got placed next to high-profile government targets without intent to violate constitutional standards. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens allowed those false statements to go unchallenged. 

Sanders later discovered the existence of OCSD's TRED records system, which contains entries exposing lies deputies and informants told juries to help Rackauckas' office win convictions. An alarmed Goethals reopened the hearings and, in March 2015, labeled Garcia and Tunstall liars before recusing OCDA. Hutchens claimed the deputies' testimony wasn't perjury but rather innocent lacks of recollections. The DA refused to file charges.

Next, this year, Sanders discovered OCSD has been hiding another records systems of inmate movements for the special handling unit: The SH Log or SH Blog. He says there's a "profoundly troubling" history here too. Deputies allegedly made the last log entry in 2013, one week after Goethals rejected Wagner's secrecy argument against release of the jail records.

This means either deputies stopped making records, a farfetched notion, or devious OCSD management has concocted a new name for the documents and is once again refusing to obey court orders.

"If a new version of the log was created and segregated from other files, the reasonable inference is that it was done to make its discovery by defendants less likely in the future," Sanders advised Wagner and Simmons while noting Brady v. Maryland requires disclosure no matter what secret name OCSD is using.

He added, "If the SH Log was terminated, renamed and/or replaced, members of the OCSD are aware of this and have chosen to remain silent. Similarly, in 2014 and 2015, many OCSD personnel were aware of the litigation [in Dekraai] and again chose to remain silent while deputies hid TRED records, the SH Log and the impeachment evidence found within them."

For her part, Hutchens—who replaced convicted felon Mike Carona as sheriff in June 2008—has insisted department management was oblivious to the records hiding fiascos. But a grand jury investigation into the gruesome, 2006 jail murder of John Derek Chamberlain, a case where inmates accused deputies of encouraging the attack, found widespread OCSD fraudulent conduct. To deny allegations, deputies doctored logs and destroyed other records.

"A substantial bulk of documentary evidence was extensively redacted, obliterating relevant content, while other records were presented by witnesses unqualified to testify to their production," the grand jury's scathing 2009 report stated.

The current battle is a continuation of OCSD game playing, according to Sanders.

"The revelations during the past several months corroborate a remarkable disdain for the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, the statutory and constitutional guidelines requiring the disclosure of favorable evidence, the laws limiting access to confidential information, and the laws that require all witnesses to tell the truth and not obstruct justice," he wrote.

The stage is now set for a scheduled Aug. 19 showdown in Goethals' courtroom.

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