The Orange County Register held an overflow, Monday night forum for the ongoing jailhouse informant scandal and invited three law enforcement agents to face off against a lone criminal defense lawyer, Scott Sanders, the assistant public defender who discovered systematic cheating against defendants more than two years ago.
Manny and Moe didn’t show, but quirky Register editor Rob Curley uttered entertaining welcome remarks, loosening up until then stern faces of attendees who included some of the area’s biggest cop, bureaucratic, legal and media members.
The hilarity quickly ended when Reg managing editor Donna Wares began the program with a hamfisted non-sequitur. Nobody on the planet doubts that Sanders’ client, Scott Dekraai, committed the county’s worst shooting massacre in 2011. The penalty phase of that case is still being litigated in court.
What drew everybody to this public forum were two recent years’ worth of alarming revelations detailing law enforcement incompetence and corruption in dozens of felony cases.
But Wares aired a video of the horrific shooting aftermath that would support one of the sneaky, misdirection talking points delivered later by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and stolen from the spirit of Marine Colonel Nathan R. Jessup: Don’t question my methods. Praise me, damn it. I give you a “safe county” from criminals.
Wares saluted, circulating softball questions to the panel, content that for 90 minutes government officials got three opportunities to speak for every time Sanders was allowed to open his mouth. At least twice, she cut off the defense lawyer while repeatedly permitting his opponents to ramble.
“Excuse me,” she said, when Sanders challenged Rackauckas’ version of reality. “Can we take a break? Obviously we have a difference of opinion here. Our intention this evening is to have a conversation. We’re not going to have a brawl, so I want to change the subject.”
Audience members booed.
Yes, Donna, heaven forbid you allow a real debate of serious issues confronting our criminal justice system.
Perhaps an unspoken intent of the evening was to promote Edward Humes’ shameless, rushed Reg entry into the snitch scandal nearly two years after the Weekly had dominated the issue. Wares put Humes, her self-important husband, on the stage with the main players and allowed him to steal even more valuable time from Sanders. Incredibly, he’d never once bothered to communicate with the public defender before absurdly assuming the mantle of alleged journalistic authority on the complex controversy. A reporter who overly relies on self-serving police department handouts to know what to write, Humes offered, not surprisingly, nothing of substance during the forum.
Left in the end was Rackauckas accompanied by a large security detail befitting the vice president of the United States as well as his more lethal linebacker media flack, Susan Kang Schroeder. No serious developments there either. Once again, he claimed the scandal that’s won national attention and independent demands for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation is imaginary, “revisionist history.”
In a Ware format buster move, Sanders managed to pull a scintilla of news out of the prosecutor. He asked Rackauckas what materials he’d studied to conclude nobody on his staff deserved punishment. The DA’s answer was akin to an unprepared ninth-grader getting nailed with a pop quiz.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who shared the DA’s stance, wasn’t even asked to explain how two of her senior jail deputies were caught committing perjury in a death penalty case but somehow escaped even limp wrist slaps. Hutchens blasted Thomas M. Goethals, the brave superior court judge who has issued the most important reprimands against law enforcement cheating, for going “a little too far.” She also returned to her standard, lame response by posing as an abused victim of “conspiracy theories.”
Assistant DA Ebrahim Baytieh explained that citizens should be proud because none of the prosecution team errors so far uncovered were intentionally committed and—swinging for the apple pie, granny and flag moment—added his own non-sequitur: deputies deserve to return safely to their families after work.
While Hutchens rolled her eyes, an unamused Sanders wondered aloud when these officials were going to start being candid about the messes they’ve created.
He reminded the audience how Rackauckas’ senior prosecutors—including Dan Wagner, Scott Simmons and Howard Gundy—did nothing when sheriff’s deputies committed perjury in their presence in 2014 and 2015.
“When Mr. Rackauckas says his office has been cleared of any wrongdoing, that’s a fabrication,” Sanders said. “Once we learned what we learned don’t expect us to ever trust . . . The takeaway is we need to be more vigilant. Defense lawyers need to be more vigilant. The community has to look at this. Sorry, this is going to flash it up a bit here, but they want this [scandal] to go away. They don’t want any redress of the past.”
But the best condensed remark of the night came from a newspaper man.
“When it comes to justice and the justice system, how you do it is as important as what you do,” said longtime Reg reporter Tony Saavedra. “Whether it’s intentionality or whether it’s a mistake—to someone’s whose rights have somehow been violated, it doesn’t matter.”