O.C. D.A. office under fire for using jailhouse informants creates advisory body

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said Monday that he was creating a committee of legal experts to review his office's use of information from jailhouse “snitches.”

Rackauckas made the move amid mounting criticism about the use of informants first exposed in the prosecution of Scott Dekraai, who killed eight people, including his ex-wife, in a 2011 Seal Beach mass shooting.

In the case, prosecutors presented evidence that Dekraai made incriminating statements to the informant. A judge later disqualified the district attorney’s office from the case, saying it failed to disclose evidence about the prolific serial informant. Secret jailhouse computer logs revealed he had been part of a scheme run with jailers to place informants near suspects.

Prosecutors and jailers said, in this case, it was a coincidence, but Dekraai's attorney insisted it was part of an operation to elicit incriminating remarks from defendants who were represented by lawyers, a violation of their rights under federal law.

At least four serious criminal cases — including two murder cases — have already suffered serious setbacks because of questions over informant involvement.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s attorney, said that during the last five years there were at least 41 cases in which informants were questionably used and his office is looking further back.

Rackauckas said the Informant Policies and Practices Evaluation Committee will make recommendations by year’s end about informants and how to avoid future mistakes. It will include retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Smith, former top L.A prosecutor Patrick Dixon, ex-Orange County Bar Assn. President Robert Gerard, legal ethics expert Blithe Leece and Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson.

“I think it’s important to have an outside opinion on what we are doing with the use of in-custody informants,” Rackauckas said. “I want the public, the bench and the bar to know that our prosecutions of murderers and violent criminal street gang members are tough but fair ... and we are not violating the rights of defendants.”

The move comes after Todd Spitzer, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors and a former prosecutor, called for more oversight of Rackauckas’ office.

Sanders, who unearthed the controversial use of informants as Dekraai’s attorney, said “decades of potential informant-related misconduct and evidence concealment” are beyond the scope of the committee’s review. Laws on informants and evidence disclosure were ignored, he said, “because of a culture that overvalues winning, and changes in procedures — although welcomed — will not remedy this fundamental problem.”

The special committee’s work is expected to cost $50,000. The district attorney has already conducted its own investigation. That probe led to policy and personnel changes as well as a new committee led by Rackauckas to approve the use of jailhouse informants.

On Oct. 12, 2011, Dekraai allegedly walked into the Salon Meritage and opened fire, killing his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, 48, along with salon owner Randy Fannin, 62; Lucia Kondas, 65; Michele Fast, 47; Victoria Buzzo, 54; Laura Elody, 46; Christy Wilson, 47; and David Caouette, 64, who was shot as he sat in his car outside.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:30:p.m.: This story was updated with changes throughout.

This story was first published at 1:24 p.m.

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