Inside C30, a courtroom designated for major felony trials at Orange County’s Central Justice Center in Santa Ana, public seats are firm, half-century-old wooden chairs. After about an hour of use, they cause pain and prompt widespread squirming that results in an annoying, continual symphony of creaks. Unlike the majestic Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse a few blocks away, the beige walls and grayish, industrial-quality carpet feel a notch above a hastily constructed DMV satellite office. Its only saving grace is a large, southwest-facing window that allows eighth-floor scenery to the Pacific Ocean and Long Beach, as well as afternoon sunlight.
Pale from six years of pretrial confinement, Daniel Patrick Wozniak grabbed that view each time bailiffs escorted the local theater actor turned killer into the courtroom. There hasn’t been any question of guilt. Costa Mesa police detectives obtained a confession from Wozniak that he committed a double murder in May 2010 while on the verge of financial ruin. The savageness of the killings plus the freakish motive—to steal money for his planned wedding and honeymoon—landed on national television-news broadcasts and in newspapers around the world.
Only one question remained as of last month: Should 32-year-old Wozniak, a movie buff who had no violent criminal record prior to the homicides, receive California’s death penalty or live the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for murdering Orange Coast College students Sam Herr, 26, and his 23-year-old friend Juri “Julie” Kibuishi?
Besides a jury that recommended death in January, the three main actors in this drama were Superior Court Judge John D. Conley, Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy and Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders. Murphy and Sanders are among the elite lawyers in their respective public agencies. Neither suffers from a lack of intelligence, ingenuity or courtroom prowess, but the Wozniak case turned once-friendly opponents into bitter enemies.
Murphy—a gregarious Republican and skilled surfer known to captivate jurors with his charisma—hails the county’s criminal-justice system as righteous. Nobody better sells the notion of blemish-free cops straight out of 1950s Dragnet episodes. Nearly three years ago, the more progressive Sanders—a family man, a basketball enthusiast and the epitome of a relentless advocate for his clients—dropped a bombshell on that system, producing evidence of entrenched corruption over a span of three decades. The mess has become known as the Orange County jailhouse-informant scandal, and the results are undeniable.
Tainted government acts involving unconstitutional scams, evidence hiding and perjury have wrecked at least 15 cases, allowing accused murderers and attempted murderers to win new trials, walk free or grab severely reduced sentences. Last year, Judge Thomas M. Goethals recused District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and his entire office from People v. Scott Dekraai, another death-penalty case, because of ethical lapses. Rackauckas took a slam-dunk case against Dekraai, who committed the worst mass shooting in county history, and infuriated victims’ families by unnecessarily cheating, a tactic that is prolonging the trial for years. A senior court official, Richard M. King, documented how the DA has tried to intimidate judges into being quiet about government misconduct.
For her part, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is pretending all unconstitutional deputy plots and deceitful sworn testimony were benign mistakes that accidentally benefited the prosecution 100 percent of the time. She has refused for three years to obey a lawfully-issued court order for records in Dekraai, claiming she is sincerely searching for responsive documents. Through her lawyers, she simultaneously insists release of the records she supposedly can’t find would jeopardize her ability to keep operations secret.
The scandal’s ripple effect isn’t confined to Southern California. News outlets such as The New York Times, Salon, National Review, Huffington Post and the Washington Post have ridiculed the corruption. Last year, more than three dozen prominent legal scholars, including former capital-case prosecutors and former California attorney general John Van de Kamp, signed an open letter asking Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
However, not everyone appreciates Sanders’ revelations. The original Wozniak judge, James A. Stotler, a former private attorney for the local sheriff’s union, recused himself from the case in early 2015 after confessing his desire to see the public defender humiliated and his reputation ruined. Pushing for the ultimate punishment, Murphy opposed the case’s transfer to Goethals, the judge in Dekraai, and the matter landed in with Conley, a former prosecutor who loathes Sanders more than Stotler. He made no secret of his determination to send Wozniak to Death Row with as little fanfare as possible.
The judge’s feud with Sanders was personal. While exposing the snitch scandal, the public defender unearthed Conley’s first-hand knowledge of informant abuse. When he was a deputy DA, the judge relied on notorious jailhouse snitch James Dean Cochrum to bolster a weak case in People v. William Evins, according to court records.
It didn’t take long for Conley to abandon the appearance of neutrality during closing arguments in the guilt portion of Wozniak. On Jan. 7, following the judge’s scheduling announcement to the jury, Murphy went first, giving the jury a superb, gut-wrenching performance for nearly four hours. That left Sanders only 70 minutes to speak. The following day, Conley decided “to level the playing field” by letting the prosecutor redo his closing statement for jurors who “may have difficulty recalling exactly what Mr. Murphy said on the various topics being discussed.” Outside the presence of the jury, a fight erupted, with Sanders claiming a last-minute scheduling change would signal to jurors that Conley hoped they’d impose the death penalty. Worried that a future appellate court might not appreciate his ham-fisted strategy, the judge reluctantly retreated.
But Conley’s hostility never subsided. During the last month of the case, he repeatedly glared at Sanders, played dumb to simple points a child could grasp, mocked other arguments and hinted at issuing contempt charges if he didn’t feel adequately respected during proceedings. Meanwhile, the septuagenarian judge smirked on several occasions, unable to hold back his glee after unnerving the public defender by rejecting his requests for records that, in Sanders’ view, potentially could save Wozniak from the death penalty.
By law, jurors are entitled to learn of key mitigating factors about a defendant’s life before deciding whether to vote for or against state execution. According to Sanders, cops only surrender records that help prosecutors. For example, defense attorneys believe deputies devise scams to entrap capital-case inmates awaiting sentencing by having a snitch offer illegal narcotics or a weapon. If the unwitting target accepts the contraband, prosecutors tell jurors the defendant is a hopeless recidivist undeserving of any punishment break. If, however, the target declines the offer, evidence of the entrapment attempt gets lost and, thus, goes unknown to the defense as a factor for mitigation. Such scenarios are preposterous to Conley. He vouched for the honesty of jail-scandal-tied deputies who’ve already been accused in Dekraai of perjury for feigning severe memory loss about their conduct and the whereabouts of documents.
With a Sept. 23 sentencing date pending in Wozniak, the judge also concocted a juvenile plot, sealing an already-redacted, 185-page defense brief filed on Sept. 9. Sanders correctly predicted Conley wouldn’t release the filing, which contained additional accusations of law-enforcement corruption, until after Murphy was allowed to first publicly distribute his reply—the gist: it’s all nonsense—to the sealed document. Giving the prosecutor a three-day head start, the judge finally unsealed Sanders’ brief on Sept. 21, and two days later, with reporters still trying to digest defense claims, he tersely declared his lack of interest. He said he’d presided over a “fair trial” and announced death as the appropriate punishment.
At 5:24 a.m. on Oct. 3, Wozniak left for his one-way trip to San Quentin State Prison’s condemned row. Conley, Murphy and the victims’ families, who’ve been remarkably strong throughout the ordeal, are relieved. But Sanders continues to protest.
“Given a decades-old history in Orange County of government agents refusing to turn over evidence and covering up those failures—plus the fact that those failures and cover-ups continue to this day—we have a system in which the imposition of death is arbitrary and capricious,” he said. “We can’t send defendants to Death Row based on dishonest litigation.”
Tell that to Rackauckas.
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California carried out its first state execution in 1893 with the hanging of Jose Gabriel, a Mission Indian convicted of murdering an elderly, San Diego County farming couple. In 1937, the state legislature changed the method of execution to lethal gas. During the next three decades, 194 convicted criminals (even ones who committed only kidnapping for ransom, robbery or extortion) were killed using that method. Beginning in 1967 and continuing for the next 25 years, U.S. Supreme Court rulings ended state-sponsored executions, calling them cruel and unusual punishment. In 1978, voters approved a statewide proposition to re-enact the death penalty with reforms such as limiting eligible offenses to only special-circumstance murders and requiring the California Supreme Court to automatically review each case. Since then, more than 900 convicted defendants, including 67 from Orange County, have landed on Death Row. Yet, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there have been only 13 executions and none in the past decade.
To Rackauckas, the state waits too long considering appeals and, thus, isn’t killing Death Row inmates fast enough. The conservative DA has a long history on the topic. In the 1980s, he took a leave of absence as a homicide prosecutor to head a corporate-funded campaign against Rose Bird, then the chief justice of the California Supreme Court. Bird, a Jerry Brown appointee, helped overturn 64 capital-case punishments. An overwhelming majority of voters unseated her and two other justices in the 1986 election. Rackauckas went on to become a superior court judge in 1993 and, five years later, won an open contest to serve as DA. Hoping to block his political nemesis, Republican county supervisor Todd Spitzer, he’s promising to run for a fifth round in 2018. If he wins, he’ll enter that four-year term close to the age of 76.
But Rackauckas’ stint as DA has been a roller coaster of varying drama. While his staff deserves accolades for solving numerous difficult cases, his administration suffers from troubling mismanagement and ethical woes. More than once, he has shielded political allies (George Argyros and Mike Carona, for example) from corruption charges. He ran a fundraising operation that gave wealthy contributors DA badges. In January, an outside committee Rackauckas handpicked at taxpayer expense to bolster his waning public image issued a report criticizing him for a win-at-all-costs mentality and a “failure of leadership,” noting he’d created an environment in which employees have “a palpable hesitation” to utter anything that challenges his stance that the office is, as he says, “perfect.”
Other woes include ideological inconsistencies. He has been willing on occasion to advocate for the release of vicious, Mexican Mafia serial killers (for example, Oscar Moriel and Rene “Boxer” Enriquez) as exceptionally generous rewards for aiding his prosecutors with snitch work. Never mind the trails of gory death Moriel and Enriquez created over periods of years; if you believe the DA, they became decent, trustworthy men while in custody and should be allowed to roam our streets again. The possibility for redemption is inexplicably a fickle concept. He adamantly wants the state to kill two men (Wozniak and Dekraai) who led crime-free lives until single, disastrous days in their lives.
Rackauckas aims to win swifter executions after November’s elections. With Hutchens, he’s helping to lead the campaign for Proposition 66, which is running a cutesy slogan about the death penalty: “Mend it. Don’t end it.” The idea behind the law-enforcement-generated ballot initiative is that defense lawyers are running amok over prosecutors and judges. To curtail those alleged powers, the DA wants to trip his courtroom competitors with a self-serving double whammy.
First, the proposed proposition gives habeas corpus appellate lawyers only one year to discover government dishonesty and file their briefs. There’s no guessing about potential consequences. The odds of killing an innocent or cheated defendant rise. Given the reality that dirty cops are clever, it has taken 10, 20, even 30 years (as in People v. Kenneth Clair) to uncover law-enforcement misdeeds that tilted trials for prosecutors.
Rackauckas’ plan also requires the defense to start the habeas corpus appeals process with the original trial judge, who is also given the weighty power to pick who represents the defendant at this stage. If Wozniak were stuck in such a system, consider his predicament: The first person who’d decide if the trial had been unfair would be Conley, the former Rackauckas colleague who’d already ignored complaints and is openly hostile to criticism of law enforcement. He thinks Sanders’ evidence of a rigged system, whether it’s a capital case or not, is gobbledygook.
But the dirty cases don’t stop bubbling up.
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The Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) found Pedro “Tiger” Martin, a member of the F Troop criminal street gang, inside a bullet-riddled car in a parking lot on Nov. 17, 2002. A 9 mm gunshot wound to the head caused Martin to bleed profusely, lose consciousness and, within minutes, die. With no eyewitnesses and no key forensic evidence at the crime scene to prompt an arrest, it became a cold case until SAPD detective Dave Rondou reopened the matter years later.
He may not have looked the part, but the now-retired Rondou fancied himself a tough guy such as the kind you’ve seen in Hollywood flicks in which it’s hard to distinguish the difference between gruff cops and underworld characters. Numerous interrogation transcripts show him playing the clichéd, don’t-give-a-crap, bad cop role—cussing and intimidating his subjects, always pretending to know more than he does. Rondou was an officer with a history of cutting deals that gave criminals sweetheart treatment if they fingered government targets who otherwise couldn’t be tied to killings. (See, for example, the Weekly‘s “Did Orange County’s Justice System Imprison an Innocent Man for Murder?” Sept. 7, 2016, and “DA Used Perjury Scam to Intimidate Defense Witness in Troubled Murder Case,” March 30, 2016.)
On Aug. 2, 2005, Rondou convinced Jaime Perea, a onetime member of the Seventh Street gang, to snitch about that outfit’s murders. According to court records, Perea said that Juan Becerra admitted he and Jesse “Jesus” Madrigal killed Martin, as well as another rival at a second location. Perea added correct details to bolster his story: Madrigal drove an El Camino while Becerra, known to carry a 9 mm handgun, fired shots out the window at Martin. Perea also claimed Madrigal confirmed Becerra’s story.
Two days after Perea’s statement, Rondou went to Madrigal, who was on the verge of being released from custody after serving time for a weapons-possession conviction, and made a threat: Identify a third participant in the killing, or “stand here by yourself and hold that big bag of shit by yourself.” A transcript of the encounter shows Madrigal pausing to think, Rondou pressing for an answer, and the inmate wondering out loud if he’ll get a benefit for naming a second gunman. Finally, he claimed Ricardo Salas had also been present and fired a .45-caliber weapon at Martin.
SAPD arrested Salas in November 2005, but they had a problem. California law prohibits a conviction based solely on the claim of an alleged accomplice, and there was no other evidence tying him to the killing. For 18 months, Salas sat inside the Orange County Jail awaiting trial without ever confessing and Rondou unable to find any new damning evidence.
Everyone familiar with the ongoing snitch scandal knows that Rackauckas, whose DA career began in 1972, insisted until June 2016 that he was unaware of a jailhouse-informant program, even though it had benefited him and his deputies in dozens and dozens of cases. Hutchens continues to pretend it doesn’t exist because the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1964 that government officials and their agents, like snitches, can’t question charged defendants who have legal representation. Instead, both law-enforcement officials credited luck with the number of times informants got placed next to government targets in an inmate population exceeding 6,200 and, even more miraculous, obtained case-saving confessions for prosecutors. Add Salas to that dubious category.
In June 2007, sheriff’s deputies abandoned OCSD classification policies to place Landon Horning, the 27-year-old son of a wealthy Newport Beach businessman and someone who’d wished he’d joined law enforcement, in Salas’ two-man cell. Even Conley might agree it’s suspicious that deputies would house an inmate facing a simple failure-to-appear violation on a minor drug-possession charge with an accused murderous gangster on the verge of facing trial. But, as with all other similar cases, the official OCDA and OCSD story is that the move was unintentional.
When a judge ordered Salas to attend a June 18, pretrial courthouse hearing, deputies told him to leave the paperwork for his case in the cell. That file included police reports, transcripts, Madrigal’s statement and newspaper clips pertaining to the Martin killing. Five days later, Horning’s message to Rackauckas arrived at DA headquarters. He said he’d obtained “some information”—a detailed confession from Salas. According to court records, he decided to share the tale out of a civic sense of duty, not to receive any personal benefit.
Never mind that it’s practically unheard of for a poor, Latino cholo to quickly confide in a rich, Anglo inmate he didn’t know, there were other glaring problems with Horning’s account. He referred to his cellmate using his formal name listed in the court paperwork, Ricardo, even though Salas went by “Ricky.” He claimed Salas gave his confession while identifying Madrigal by his birth name “Jesus,” the name listed in court papers, even though Salas knew him only as “Jesse.”
Perhaps most troubling with Horning’s story is his contention that Salas’ confession put Madrigal in the driver’s seat, himself in the front passenger seat and Becerra in the back seat. Madrigal drove an El Camino. By design, that vehicle has no back seat.
Orange County’s suburban-stacked juries have difficulty doubting even weak prosecution cases. In September 2008, Deputy District Attorney Allison Gyves used Madrigal and Horning, both of whom quietly received sweetheart deals, to convict Salas, a teenager at the time of the killing. A judge ordered him to die in prison, dispensing a life term, plus an additional 25 years.
But jurors didn’t know the prosecution team doctored the case to win. Before the trial, they released Horning from custody early and moved him to Chico, 505 miles from Orange County. The unethical shenanigans, which were kept secret, prevented Salas’ defense attorney, Houman Fakhimi, from meeting the government’s star witness in advance of the trial.
Why hide Horning?
It has taken a decade and the superb digging of Salas’ current appellate attorney, Pasadena-based Tarik S. Adlai, to learn the answer: OCDA artificially secured the witness’ credibility with the jury by burying records of his disturbing mental condition.
Salas’ jurors and trial lawyer Fakhimi were kept clueless that at the time Horning claimed he’d won the confession, his history included “malingering and false reporting,” according to newly obtained court records. Those same government documents not only outline how the snitch “hears voices and . . . [is] schizo, obsessive-compulsive and paranoid,” but also how he smuggled drugs into the jail via his anal cavity, attempted to hang himself, pretended to be deaf and blind with deputies, suffers severe brain damage from traffic accidents, and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorders.
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On a recent morning near the courthouse where he’s often treated as a pariah, Sanders voiced frustration that law-enforcement officials continue to dodge accountability. He joked that exposing the snitch scandal labyrinth aged him beyond his 50 years. In truth, he shows no sign of retreat.
The public defender hopes citizens will reject Prop. 66 and instead support Proposition 62, which abolishes the death penalty and requires special-circumstance-murder inmates to serve life terms with no possibility for release, work prison day jobs and pay restitution to victims. If successful, the measure will save taxpayers an estimated $150 million per year.
Sanders advises voters wavering on the dueling propositions to think of the plight of defendants like Salas if Prop. 66 had gone into effect before the discovery of the informant scandal in 2014. Last December, Deputy DA Andrew Bugman, playing the loyal yes-man for Rackauckas, appeared in court to claim attacks on the Salas conviction are “conspiracy theories” unworthy of judicial consideration. There is no snitch scandal in Orange County, Bugman added.
An incredulous Sanders differs.
“The Salas case demonstrates a deeply disturbing, win-at-all-costs culture inside the DA’s office, which is blocking a new, fair trial,” he said. “Considering their agencies have so often hidden evidence favorable to defendants facing murder charges and state execution, it’s sickening that Rackauckas and Hutchens want the government to kill inmates faster, and then pretend that would be genuine reform.”
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; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.