If public integrity section officials at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. needed an alarming fact to finally prompt a formal investigation of law enforcement corruption in Orange County, they have one today.
In recent hours, four veteran Orange County Sheriff's Department deputies–Seth Tunstall, Bill Grover, Bryan Larson and Ben Garcia–have refused to testify under oath in connection with a Santa Ana murder trial and defendant Eric Ortiz.
Somebody with power and integrity won't be amused by their conduct inside the county's jails and they'll be prosecuted.
Those readers who've followed my reporting on the county's now nationally infamous snitch scandal know that special evidentiary hearings in People v. Scott Dekraai revealed shocking details of how cops, deputies, prosecutors and the county counsel's office repeatedly worked in tandem to trample the constitutional rights of pre-trial, in-custody defendants.
Their cheating wasn't just for jollies. It helped the government win criminal cases without anyone–defendants, defense lawyers, judges, jurors and journalists–knowing that unethical measures had been employed.
Here's the important primer: The Sixth Amendment prohibits law enforcement officials (and their agents, like jailhouse snitches) from conducting schemes to trick charged and legally represented individuals into making self-incriminating statements that can be used in court. That's legal 101 for any professional in the field.
But there's substantial–no, overwhelming–evidence that deputies in the OCSD's special handling unit violated the ban in dozens and dozens of cases by secretly orchestrating the work of jailhouse snitches who asked government targets questions about their cases and reported back. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has claimed that any potential ethical breaches were unintentional and due to a lack of training.
Our sheriff's stance is problematic. The second, major prong of the scandal demonstrates consciousness of guilt among her deputies. Evidence of the snitch maneuverings was strenuously withheld from defense lawyers like Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who represents Dekraai. If someone didn't know he was making mistakes, why would he feel the need to consistently hide records of those errors? And what is the probability that so-called innocent bumbling would aid the government's stance 100 percent of the time?
In fact, the OCSD operation was so successfully clandestine that outsiders didn't even know for 25 years that the department had created a government database called TRED, which contains proof deputies and snitches testified falsely to help prosecutors win convictions.
Questionable law enforcement-snitch operations apparently extend to the Ortiz case. A jury convicted the 26-year-old in January 2014 for an eight-year-old, special circumstances murder in Santa Ana. But jurors and Rudy Loewenstein, Ortiz's defense lawyer, were kept in the dark concerning details of the pro-prosecution work done for deputy district attorney Eric Petersen by a jailhouse rat and serial burglar, Donald Geary.
Loewenstein–a thorough, passionate lawyer–saw some of the same characters in the Dekraai scandal were tied to his case and, before Ortiz could be sentenced, he asked Superior Court Judge Richard King in May to allow him to explore the possibility of law enforcement cheating against his client. King agreed. Loewenstein summoned the deputies, who ran OCSD jail snitch operations, to the witness stand inside the county's central courthouse and–voila!–we're back to today with four officers refusing to testify since Tuesday and the outcome unclear.
Earlier this year, UC Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, a nationally respected legal scholar, labeled the scandal serious and called for a DOJ investigation into whether badged individuals conspired to routinely violated constitutional rights. That was before this latest development. On September 30, the New York Times publicized the mess with an editorial. The question now is: Are federal officials in D.C. paying attention?