A spry, middle-aged fellow you could picture driving a sports car with vanity plates, Deputy Attorney General Michael T. Murphy recently entered Judge Thomas M. Goethals’ top floor perch inside Orange County’s Central Courthouse in Santa Ana and headed to his seat, where he dropped his briefcase, turned to the back of the courtroom and realized he’d been remiss.
Murphy walked briskly to a huddle group of upper-lever management at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD), an outfit his agency, the California Attorney General’s Office (DOJ), has under investigation for corruption.
After years of muddling, what DOJ will do, if anything, is already anti-climactic. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ department lost credibility long ago thanks largely to the county’s ongoing, four-year-old jailhouse informant scandal. There’s no question that officials repeatedly committed perjury, hid exculpatory evidence from murder trial defendants, disobeyed lawfully-issued court orders and conducted illegal operations to help prosecutors win tainted convictions.
But Murphy didn’t approach the OCSD troupe with a stern face, tough questions or demands that these fellow public employees finally clean up their act.
The deputy AG, a man able to file criminal charges against dirty cops if he wants, acted as if he’d happily stumbled upon his high-school reunion. He offered enthusiastic “good mornings,” shook more than a half dozen hands as well as traded back pats with folks Hutchens tasked with thwarting future embarrassing revelations about her department. The sheriff must have been delighted when her underlings reported the coziness, which was, astonishingly, conducted feet away from journalists.
San Diego-based Murphy is in Orange County nowadays because DOJ involuntarily assumed prosecutorial duties in People v. Scott Dekraai, a case stemming from the worst mass killing in modern local history. Immediately after Dekraai killed eight people, including his former spouse, at a Seal Beach salon in 2011, he confessed that a child custody battle motivated his shooting spree. In the aftermath, court observers agree, OC law enforcement—prosecutors and deputies—took a slam dunk death penalty case and wrecked it by cheating behind-the-scenes in hopes of guaranteeing Dekraai’s one-way trip to San Quentin State Prison’s death row.
Revelations of that cheating launched the now nationally infamous snitch scandal which has overturned convictions in at least 15 other murder and attempted murder cases, prompted the forced historic recusal of the entire Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA) from Dekraai and led the California Court of Appeal to rule that police conduct to win cases here has gone “well beyond simply distasteful or improper” and is “real” and “grave.” Ridiculing the AG office’s defense of OCDA and OCSD ethical lapses as harmless, unintentional errors, the appellate justices backed Judge Goethals’ March 2015 recusal order. That ruling put Murphy in the prosecutor’s seat for the penalty phase of Dekraai.
The government wants death; Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders seeks a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole; and survivors of the shooting victims have mixed opinions, though they are generally sickened that law enforcement’s misconduct has prolonged a resolution. For example, Paul Wilson, whose wife Christie was murdered, labels Dekraai “a coward” and yet can simultaneously demand “accountability” for all the badged, weapons-toting charlatans.
Goethals is delaying that punishment stage until he completes a third round of special evidentiary hearings into sheriff’s department shenanigans that include Hutchens’ stunning 228-week defiance of his ruling to surrender evidence. The judge has made no secret of his lingering question: Given rampant corruption inside the department, can OCSD officials ever be trusted as honest communicators to judges and juries?
Murphy, whose agency you recall hasn’t completed its alleged corruption probe, was willing to prematurely declare his answer during court proceedings this month: Yes!
He would have us believe that with the likes of Rackauckas and Hutchens at the helm of local law enforcement machinery, it somehow quietly gave birth to the Miraculous Orange County Criminal Justice System Reformation of 2017!
There are layers of tragedy in our snitch scandal. Cops decided they could break the law with impunity. Possibly innocent defendants didn’t get fair trials, lost their freedom and landed in prison. Incarcerated, known killers have been sent back to the streets because officials fabricated reports. Prosecutors first denied any cheating and later, when it was impossible to maintain that lie, pretended they’d been clueless about corruption that helped them win cases for more than a decade. Certain superior court judges, like John D. Conley, looked the other way, barking from the bench that by definition cops always tell the truth. Even cowardly, well-connected defense lawyers, who should be outraged by the mess, have chosen to remain silent or, worse, regurgitate government spin that the scandal is imaginary.
No legitimate accounting can ignore the failure of the California AG’s office in this crisis either. Citizens rightfully expect the state’s most powerful prosecutorial.agency to step in as honest actors when local law enforcement fails at basic ethics. That hasn’t happened.
While observing prior special evidentiary hearings in Dekraai in 2014 and 2015, Deputy AG Theodore Cropley, Murphy’s predecessor in OC, remained silent when three OCSD deputies, operating deceptively with the protection of Rackauckas aides Dan Wagner, Scott Simons and Howard Gundy, committed perjury, according to Goethals.
Those deputies—Seth Tunstall, Bill Grover and Ben Garcia—had echoed Hutchens’ lie that the department didn’t employ jailhouse informants and, therefore, couldn’t turn over non-existent records of unconstitutional activities tricking pre-trial defendants into making self-incriminating statements when their lawyers were not present.
In reality, of course, OCSD did employ informants and possessed thousands of related records in at least two, long-hidden databases known as the computerized “TRED” system and the “Special Handling Log.” From portions of those records that are now public, it’s clear snitches and deputies have been lying in trials for years.
Yet, the sheriff’s initial scandal strategy, one utilized for more than three years, insisted nobody at her department was guilty of any wrongdoing, a direct slap at Goethals. She also later tried to explain away the perjury by claiming a lack of training led the veteran deputies to think a courthouse oath to “tell the whole truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” didn’t require them to honestly answer questions about their use of snitches in the jail.
Goethals’ third round of hearings, which began earlier this month, has left Hutchens in a quandary. With her previous lies exposed by a hard-charging Sanders, options to talk her way out of facing accountability have narrowed. Tellingly, the sheriff abandoned Tunstall, Grover and Garcia after fashioning a tale that the deputies launched a highly-active snitch programs without anyone in management ever knowing.
Weird then that OCSD records in my possession contain supervisors’ praise for the trio’s informant work.
I’m not a fan of fibbing deputies, but it strikes me as pathetic that Hutchens is trying to re-write yet another version of false history with herself and her management team donning the costumes of innocent victims duped by underlings in a rigid para-military organization.
In legitimate law enforcement probes, it’s normal for investigators to aim for the biggest polluted fish flapping in the cesspool. That’s what happened to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff Paul Tanaka before their corruption convictions in recent years. FBI agents methodically worked their way up the chain of command, learning all the facts they could to determine who was ultimately accountable for that city’s jailhouse corruption.
That’s not the course the California AG’s office chose in the Orange County scandal. Oddly, Murphy has given use immunity from prosecution to Hutchens’ supervisors and not the frontline, least powerful deputies. He’s also spent hours interviewing high-ranking OCSD officials, the same ones he was seen glad-handing in the back of Goethals’ courtroom, purportedly without taking notes and accepting their requests not to record discussions at sheriff’s headquarters.
It’s apparent that Hutchens and Murphy are in collusion, deciding Tunstall, Garcia and Grover are most expendable to help expedite the end of the scandal and get Dekraai to San Quentin.
On June 7, this deputy AG entered the already crowded Snitch Scandal Hall of Shame by adopting the sheriff’s talking points with the hearings still underway and soliciting supportive testimony from the immunized OCSD bosses.
“The evidence to my eyes is showing that, yes, there were deputies that were doing these things that could certainly be characterized as running an informant program,” Murphy told a hushed courtroom. “But that doesn’t mean the lack of awareness from upper management is so incredible [to believe] . . . To my mind, there is nothing that is going to support [Sanders’] theory that the command staff is in here deceiving the court.”
The Orange County Grand Jury, a citizens’ panel with a long history of pro-establishment gullibility on serious issues and an inability to know where to dig, is scheduled today to issue its report on the scandal. Will it overlook Rackauckas’ falsehoods, even on CBS’s 60 Minutes? Will it accept Hutchens’ swerving spin as gospel? Or will it help provide this community a much-needed wake-up call?
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.