Determined to become one of Southern California’s prominent criminal-justice voices, L. Song Richardson waited mere days into her term as the new dean of UC Irvine’s School of Law to conduct a Jan. 13 “teach-in & training” honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by, as her event poster declared, “mobilizing for justice in an unjust world.”
Such an event certainly wouldn’t feel remarkable in Los Angeles or San Francisco. But Orange County hasn’t always been hospitable to progressive activism emerging at one of its most prestigious institutions. For decades, we’ve been home to right-wing political kooks who’ve specialized in comforting the affluent, scapegoating minorities and, no matter what disgraceful outrage committed, defending dirty law-enforcement officials as well as bigotry.
It was only 18 years ago when judges and prosecutors here allied with California Attorney General Bill Lockyer—a liberal Democrat, no less—to continue to block gay citizens from serving on juries. Lockyer argued that gays shouldn’t receive such a “special” perk, putting them on civic duty par with their heterosexual relatives and neighbors. After all, the AG asserted, who could trust a minority group producing the diverse likes of “RuPaul . . . Truman Capote and Ellen DeGeneres?”
I recalled that case because William Bedsworth, a justice at the California Court of Appeal, attended Richardson’s UCI conference. Bedsworth—a Republican governor’s appointee, no less—wrote the groundbreaking 2000 appellate ruling rejecting the institutionalized discrimination. He noted the gay community’s “history of persecution [is] comparable to that [which] blacks and women share” and observed that gay citizens “deserve to bear their share of the burdens and benefits of citizenship, including jury service.”
It’s laughable now that the justice’s stance caused so much handwringing from defenders of a warped status quo. Richardson, a graduate of Harvard and Yale universities, hopes her students will find inspiration from past acts of bravery. She wants them to challenge “harmful rhetoric” of establishment players and the government “policies that inevitably follow” as weapons of oppression.
“We have made some progress, but let’s not fool ourselves,” Richardson told the enthusiastic crowd. “We still have a racialized immigration system and a racialized criminal-justice system. We still have poverty, segregation, discrimination, threats to voting rights, threats to freedom of expression. . . . It’s time for those of us who oppose racism, misogyny and hatred to build coalitions and to fight any deviations from the values that all of us hold dear.”
There’s no need for a posse to search for entrenched forces repulsed by her agenda. You can see them standing in plain sight, including Tony Rackauckas, the soon-to-be-75-year-old district attorney who is seeking his sixth term over a county with a population larger than 20 states. Rackauckas began his stint by declaring no interest in political-corruption cases, then spent the next 18 years showing why. He and prosecution teams have chronically lied, hidden exculpatory evidence, protected wealthy crooks and ignored police corruption when it would improve their chances of winning convictions.
It’s a record that deserves more scrutiny. The DA and his equally tainted cohort, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, brag that when they attend community events, nobody mentions scandals that have wrecked at least 17 murder, attempted-murder and felony-assault cases. Indeed, both politicians openly mock the rule of law. When Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals insisted on law-enforcement compliance with his orders, Rackauckas papered him in nearly five dozen cases, and Hutchens concocted a multiyear scheme to hide records revealing deputy cheating.
More recently—in fact, the day after UCI announced Richardson’s elevation—James Laird, one of Rackauckas’ top lieutenants, inadvertently conceded a point that I’d made years ago: the Orange County district attorney’s office’s (OCDA) professed outrage about murders sometimes hinges on expediency and, worse, racism.
At that Dec. 22, 2017, press conference, a tense Laird asserted that freeing serial killer Oscar Moriel in less than four years represents sound decision-making. On separate admitted “hunting” expeditions armed with weapons such as an AK-47, Moriel (a.k.a. “Scar”) looked for victims to murder in Santa Ana. The Mexican Mafia associate concedes he killed at least five or six people and attempted to murder a seventh. To save himself from California’s Three Strikes accountability, Moriel proposed a secret pact. He’d become a jailhouse snitch against other government targets—none of them serial killers—to avoid spending the rest of his life in prison.
Reporters pressed Laird to explain why Moriel hadn’t been minimally required to solve his own murders with immunity before getting a sweetheart arrangement. “Well, we just didn’t make it part of the deal,” he offered, visibly desperate to flee more questions. Never mind those revelations might have given the victims’ families closure or helped exonerate any inmates wrongly convicted of the serial killer’s crimes.
This prosecutor didn’t care. Santa Ana’s “a pretty violent” place, Laird rationalized before adding a vocal shoulder shrug. “We have unfortunate shootings that occur [there] all the time.”
The city certainly sees disproportionate violence, but the OCDA’s ambivalence to that plight is striking. Moriel’s victims, poor and Latino, never received even fake consideration. Their killer didn’t undergo a minute of meaningful investigation from cops and prosecutors who spent many hours in his presence. He escaped all charges. Rackauckas showed no interest in the identities of those lost brown lives or how their deaths impacted their families and their community.
Meanwhile, in recent days, in a separate world when it comes to criminal justice, the sheriff and the DA conducted intense investigations, employed expensive surveillance aircrafts, held press conferences, appeared on national TV news programs, issued media releases, made an arrest, filed charges and hailed the life of one 19-year-old white man recently murdered near Irvine.
R. Scott Moxley’s award-winning investigative journalism has touched nerves for two decades. An angry congressman threatened to break Moxley’s knee caps. A dirty sheriff promised his critical reporting was irrelevant and then landed in prison. The U.S. House of Representatives debated his work. Federal prosecutors credited his stories for the arrest of a doctor who sold fake medicine to dying patients. 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; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.