Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ Refusal To Obey Court Orders May Lead To Contempt Hearings

Orange County Superior Court (Photo by R. Scott Moxley)

During this morning’s hearing in People v. Scott Dekraai, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals threatened potential future contempt proceedings against Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and her deputies who’ve flagantly stonewalled compliance with his January 2013 discovery orders in the death penalty case.

“I remind the sheriff [who was, as usual, not present] that I’ve waited nearly four years,” Goethals said. “That means I’ve been waiting 200 weeks or 1,400 days. This case should have been resolved long ago except for the gross failures of the prosecution team, which continue to this day.”

If Hutchens and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who has helped cover up unconstitutional sheriff department scams, didn’t get that message about the county jailhouse informant scandal, the judge added, “The entire Orange County community has been cheated . . .  The sheriff shouldn’t underestimate this court’s determination to find the truth.”

Goethals, a former homicide prosecutor, expressed incredulity that deputies who repeatedly committed perjury two years ago in Dekraai are still employed by Hutchens, carry guns and haven’t been adequately asked by their boss about their roles in hiding evidence from Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders.

There’s now no mystery about why the sheriff’s department has been so determined to maintain secrecy: the records contain proof of systemic prosecution team scams with snitches to violate the constitutional ban on government agents questioning pre-trial defendants about their charges and defense strategies.

To Goethals’ bewilderment, Hutchens, through her attorneys, claims she’s been an honest public servant.

Deputy County Counsel Kevin Dunn expressed dismay that the judge is disappointed with Hutchens’ willingness to product documents in Dekraai because, “It’s a difficult situation” and “I believe we have shed a light into every corner [of the sheriff’s department] and “I think the efforts continue” with an “absolutely diligent” sheriff determined to be “responsive.”

Goethals said he’s “come to expect” game playing by the sheriff, given her four-year delay tactics. He believes her latest surrender of about 5,600 records 10 days ago was a tactical “document dump” designed to frustrate the process by wasting even more of the court’s time inspecting irrelevant information possibly to “hide the needle in a haystack.” The judge observed that the sheriff’s department has issued disingenuous press statements and sent him declarations under penalty of perjury that contain, at best, half-truths or, at worst, lies.

“The last thing any judge wants to do is declare contempt hearings of public officials,” Goethals said. “Frankly, we are getting closer and closer in this case . . . To say this has been a painful process is a gross understatement. This system is about justice . . . The process is crucial to the integrity to the system . . . We all need to respect the process.”

Dunn reasserted the sheriff’s been operating in “good faith,” and Sanders complained that it’s unfair for the prosecution team, led by Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner, to continue withholding evidence that “should have been turned over years ago.”

Goethals didn’t seem to buy the county counsel’s line, but acknowledged he “suspects” Sanders is right.

Recent weeks have been disastrous for Rackauckas, Wagner and Hutchens.

In November, the California of Appeal issued a blistering condemnation of corruption inside the sheriff’s department as well as multiple, knowing ethical lapses among prosecutors, and accepted Goethals’ recusal of the entire DA’s office from Dekraai as legally appropriate.

On Dec. 10, justifiably exhausted relatives of the victims of Dekraai’s murderous 2011 shooting spree in Seal Beach held a press conference to ask prosecutors to end their pursuit of a death penalty punishment and instead immediately give the killer a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Paul Wilson, whose wife died in the massacre, said he couldn’t believe that Orange County law enforcement felt the need to cheat in a slam-dunk case against a defendant who confessed immediately after the crimes.

(Deputy Attorney General Michael T. Murphy was present during the hearing, but largely remained silent, including failing to explain if his agency, which now has penalty phase duties in Dekraai and has been useless as a state guardian of ethics in Orange County’s criminal justice system, will consider the wishes of the victims.)

Then, yesterday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it has opened an official investigation into Rackauckas and Hutchens’ agencies.

In the wake of that historic move that should catch the attention of all Orange County residents, the sheriff issued a press release stating that she’ll be as cooperative as she always has been, just like in Dekraai.

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