Given near constant revelations of Orange County law enforcement corruption tied to a sensational death penalty case during the last 44 months, it was fitting that Aug. 10 closing arguments in a related special evidentiary hearing would end with another bombshell.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and members of her command staff recently assured Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals that, despite failing to comply for four years with his 2013 discovery orders in People v. Scott Dekraai, they’d finally surrendered all evidence and could be trusted to swiftly obey future judicial directives.
Of course, Hutchens hadn’t abandoned her lying practices in what is known nationally as the Orange County jailhouse informant scandal, which she created in league with District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
Joining Hutchens and Rackauckas on the ethical low road has been Michael T. Murphy, a California deputy attorney general based in San Diego. After Goethals recused all DA office personnel from Dekraai in March 2015 because of concerns they would not behave ethically, Murphy assumed prosecutorial duties and, before knowing even a tiny portion of the situation, quickly adopted demonstratively deceitful spin by the sheriff and DA as his own. Now with the AG’s office onboard, three government agencies have attacked Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who discovered law enforcement’s unethical snitch use, as a manufacturer of a false narrative that their ethical violations had been intentional and, not as they claim, accidental.
But during his closing argument Sanders placed on a courtroom projection screen a critical document that Hutchens, master of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) disasters since her predecessor landed in federal prison for corruption, spent nearly five years hiding from him: a Dec. 27, 2009, email from deputy Seth Tunstall to his colleagues in the jail’s Special Handling Unit, which manages in-custody snitches working against high-profile inmates like Dekraai.
Sanders had received the evidence days earlier from a Goethals-nudged Murphy, who probably remains clueless about the explosiveness of the document. To someone new to the informant controversy, the redacted email may appear mundane or even indecipherably cryptic. But in seven sentences, five scandal facts—all adamantly denied for years by Hutchens and Rackauckas—aren’t just proven. They underscore the validity of Sanders’ insistence that prosecution teams in Orange County have secretly conspired to violate pre-trial defendants’ constitutional rights by enticing them into making self-incriminating statements after they’ve been charged and have legal representation. The U.S. Supreme Court calls such unethical actions Massiah violations of constitutional rights.
Here’s the list:
1. Special Handing Unit deputies working with a taxpayer-paid jail informant, Mexican Mafia serial killer Oscar Moriel, manipulated the color wrist bands worn by snitches to indicate levels of dangerousness, stunts aimed at enhancing their agents’ anti-police street credibility and, thus, the ability to lure self-incriminating statements from unwitting government targets.
2. In this instance, nine deputies at both the main jail and the Theo Lacy Facility (TLF) were in on the plot to violate Massiah “at the request of” Santa Ana Police Department investigator Charles Flynn, who wanted the placement of a target next to Moriel to appear coincidental so that any gathered information could be presented in court as the result of innocent happenstance.
3. Hutchens, who has no credibility at this point, wants Goethals to believe there is not a single snitch scandal record at TLF over the years Dekraai was housed there, but yet her agency’s scheme outlined in the email has TLF deputies working in coordination with Intake Release Center colleagues to manipulate the movement of the target next to Moriel.
4. The sheriff wasn’t truthful in her numerous denials that OCSD never used jail informants like Moriel to work on state cases for the DA’s prosecution teams or conspired to violate Massiah.
5. The most offensive revelation from the email pertains to the unconscionable incarceration of a 14-year-old Luis Vega for a 2009 attempted murder not far from South Coast Plaza. As I exclusively reported three years ago, Moriel wrote deputies an unequivocal Jan. 5, 2010, note detailing Vega’s innocence as described by a co-defendant. To explain why they left the boy locked up for two years, officers pretended they’d received but hadn’t read the informant’s message. But this email proves the fabrication. We hadn’t known until the late emergence of this document that they’d arranged this particular Massiah scam on Dec. 27, 2009, moved the target next to Moriel six days later (Jan. 2, 2010) and waited, as the department’s record shows, for the snitch to “find out any details” of the attempted murder. Not liking that the informant work resulted favorably for Vega, they opted not to act on it.
“It’s historic; it’s horrendous,” Sanders said of OCSD’s systemic cheating, which he hopes will result in Goethals removing the death penalty as an option for Dekraai and instead impose a life term without any possibility of parole for the 2011 Seal Beach salon massacre. “We now know the officers knew of Vega’s innocence within days of receiving Moriel’s notes and buried the incriminating agency email.”
When Goethals asked Murphy if he really wanted him to ignore all the evidence he’s learned of law enforcement cheating in Dekraai, the red-faced deputy AG abandoned his prior echoing of the DA and sheriff’s spin, but argued that deputy perjury and OCSD’s “undoubtedly” chronic discovery and Massiah violations have not impeded the defendant’s fair trial rights.
“Don’t punish society for the misdeeds of law enforcement,” the death penalty proponent told the judge before adding that an notion OCSD officials would nowadays hide records favorable to Sanders’ client from a penalty phase jury is “preposterous.”
Murphy declined to explain his ethical decision-making.
Goethals is scheduled to rule on Aug. 18.
[Note: One of the Special Handling Unit deputies named in the 2009 email is Nicholas Caropino, whose on-duty sexual misconduct in 2013 and 2014 with young Orange County women, including one who appeared on Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Orange County, resulted in his termination and a recent federal jury verdict of $2.25 million against Hutchens’ OCSD.]