At precisely 1:37 p.m. on Aug. 10, inside Santa Ana’s largest, top-floor courtroom, California Deputy Attorney General Michael T. Murphy envisioned himself as the visiting San Diego-based government agent on the verge of rescuing Orange County’s bungling law-enforcement officials from their inability to halt the jailhouse-informant scandal and taking Scott Dekraai, the shooter in the 2011 Seal Beach salon massacre, into a penalty phase in which a jury would demand death.
A tall, husky fellow sporting a salt-and-pepper coif that unfairly ages him and a deportment charming at any happy hour bar, Murphy exuded confidence for months, certain he could render the snitch scandal meaningless after District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens failed in that uphill endeavor. He told Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals at a June hearing, “The defense is unhappy with the way the evidence is coming in,” clueless the opposite was true for Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s attorney who discovered the widespread illegal informant use that sparked the Orange County jailhouse snitch scandal.
On other occasions when Goethals ribbed Sanders in open court, the deputy AG couldn’t contain his glee. He would turn to colleague Ronald A. Jakob, smile widely and nod his head, leaving no doubt about his mindset: We’re crushing this junior leaguer.
“This is not a forum for the defense to investigate the sheriff’s department and ask questions about any decisions they might make on any broad range of topics,” Murphy stated from a written speech on that August afternoon. “Nor is it a government-oversight hearing that is designed to delve into government behavior.”
But, like the wide receiver who spikes the football before reaching the end zone, Murphy would learn he’d prematurely celebrated. Goethals not only rejected his tacit defense of the indefensible, rampant OC law-enforcement corruption, but, on Aug. 18, the judge also issued a ruling that a few months ago seemed improbable, if not impossible. He sided with Sanders, who, it turns out, wasn’t the country bumpkin in the courtroom. Citing the sheriff’s four-and-a-half-year stretch of disobeying his orders in People v. Scott Dekraai, as well as Murphy’s decision to join Hutchens in hiding evidence, Goethals removed the death penalty as an option.
What’s remarkable about the California AG office’s colossal, unforced failure is that recent history provided these state prosecutors with a detailed roadmap of precisely where not to go, yet they nonetheless followed Rackauckas’ failed path.
Context is important on the point. Goethals, a former homicide prosecutor, rocked the nation’s legal world in March 2015 by recusing the entire district attorney’s office from Dekraai because he believed local prosecutors would continue to tolerate unethical conduct in the case. After all, high-ranking deputy DAs spent years defending sheriff’s deputies who’d ignored the judge’s discovery orders; operated scams to trample the constitutional rights of pretrial, in-custody defendants; hid exculpatory evidence; and committed perjury in hopes of masking their exploits.
In short, evidence uncovered in the early stages of the scandal demonstrated the local criminal-justice system far too often operated more like a cesspool run by the imaginations of, sadly, more than a handful of warped, badged individuals who either participated in unethical acts to win criminal cases or saw them and remained mum.
Observing a “grave” scandal created by Rackauckas and Hutchens, the California Court of Appeal backed Goethals’ recusal decision in November 2016. “The magnitude of the systemic problems cannot be overlooked,” justices Kathleen O’Leary, Richard Fybel and Raymond Ikola wrote. Two months later, Murphy assumed Dekraai prosecution duties and, given the history of the case, merely needed to study that appellate decision and to do what the DA had refused: ensure that prosecution-team members, including those within the sheriff’s department, stopped cheating.
But it’s clear now that from the outset, Murphy had no intention of operating as an independent authority willing to police fellow law-enforcement officers. Instead, he jumped inside the tent with the DA and Hutchens, who’d circled the proverbial wagons by angrily (and disingenuously) labeling all the cheating Sanders uncovered as accidents that miraculously aided Rackauckas’ office 100 percent of the time. Murphy adopted that stance, too.
However, when the sheriff was forced to reconcoct her 3-year-old story that didn’t jibe with powerful evidence emerging this spring and summer, he shifted as well, mimicking the updated tale: Sure, there was cheating with informants to help prosecutors win cases, but the wrongdoers were confined to essentially three frontline Special Handling Unit deputies: Ben Garcia, Seth Tunstall and Bill Grover. More important, both Murphy and Hutchens agreed that in this paramilitary organization, neither the sheriff nor anyone in her command staff supposedly ever knew of the unconstitutional scams inside the jails.
“[What] we are hearing from the evidence is there were some deputies who were doing things that appeared to be running an informant program,” Murphy said to refute dozens of documents Sanders found that prove department management’s participation in the hanky-panky. “But that doesn’t mean the lack of awareness from upper management is so incredible because how could they not know about the, the informant program in the sheriff’s department? . . . You know, the evidence is showing that this is a large bureaucracy with decentralized command.”
The deputy AG refuses to explain why there are unambiguous management memos championing informant operations, emails discussing management’s desire to devise a new term for “confidential informant” to thwart subpoenas and management’s personnel commendations to Special Handling Unit officers specifically for their secret snitch work.
In reality, Murphy didn’t want to get to the bottom of the scandal so that genuine reforms might someday be enacted. This public servant asked command deputies giving conflicting testimony if they’d lied, then simply accepted all denials. To Hutchens’ delight, he refused to ask her a single question while she was under oath, though she bragged for years she could destroy the scandal’s credibility if given the forum.
Perhaps worse, this deputy AG schemed to give the sheriff, whom he never bothered to interview on the record, cover. He refused to hand grants of immunity to Garcia, Tunstall and Grover, a move that blocked them from potentially telling their side of the story after struggling with the truth in prior hearings, when they regurgitated management’s lies. Meanwhile, he gave immunity to members of Hutchens’ command staff so they could try to pin the mess on these lower-ranking officers.
Goethals is no fool. He saw the staging. He noted the sheriff lacked credibility and observed both she and Rackauckas remain in denial.
“Any trial court has the right to expect and to insist upon compliance with its lawfully issued orders,” the judge wrote in his Aug. 18 ruling. “To accept chronic non-compliance with such orders in any case, much less a case of this magnitude, would dangerously undermine the integrity of, and ultimately the community’s respect for, the justice system.”
You have to wonder if Murphy, a graduate of the University of San Diego School of Law, finally gets it. Will his office file perjury charges against jail deputies or, even more appropriately, their two-faced supervisors and Hutchens who lied under oath in a death penalty case? Will it appeal Goethals’ ruling that means Dekraai’s punishment likely will be eight consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole? Given the AG’s refusal to protect the rule of law in Orange County, are there people out there who can run our two top law-enforcement agencies with unwavering integrity?
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.