O.C. murder conviction vacated after jailhouse snitch hearings
Orange County prosecutors have agreed to vacate the murder conviction of a Santa Ana man following revelations that key evidence was not turned over to the defense during his trial.
Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett this week approved the agreement between prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case of Leonel Vega, who was convicted in 2010 for the gang murder of Giovanni Onofre and was sentenced to life in prison. He will now be retried, prosecutors said.
The decision was first reported by Voice of OC.
The lack of disclosure in Vega’s murder trial came to light during a hearing about the use of jailhouse informants in the case of accused Seal Beach mass killer Scott Dekraai.
Vega was convicted based largely on the testimony of three informants, including a jailhouse snitch named Oscar Moriel, a longtime gang member who testified during the Dekraai hearing that he may have killed up to six people but was hoping his informant work would lead to his release.
Dekraai’s defense attorneys sought the hearing to prove their allegations that prosecutors and law enforcement for years engaged in a pattern of unconstitutionally deploying jailhouse snitches and routinely concealing their work from defense attorneys.
Vega’s case is one of several in which questions have been raised during the months-long hearing about whether prosecutors fulfilled their obligations to disclose evidence.
During the Dekraai hearing it was revealed that Moriel took at least 300 pages of notes but that only four pages were turned over to Vega’s defense attorneys.
Prosecutor Marc Rozenberg, who appeared at the hearing to vacate Vega’s conviction, said material that was not disclosed was in the hands of federal officials and county prosecutors did not have it at the time of Vega’s trial.
Prosecutors agreed to vacate the conviction because “we felt that was the right thing to do,” he said. Now they will focus on retrying Vega.
“Basically it’s a do-over,” he said.
Vega’s attorney, Todd Melnik, said that in addition to hundreds of pages of notes, prosecutors failed to disclose reports and recordings in which Moriel discussed Vega’s case.
The undisclosed evidence showed that Moriel demanded money and asked for assistance joining the military in exchange for his help, Melnik said. It also showed that Vega had been recorded in his jail cell.
Melnik said he believes more convictions will be vacated based on revelations in the Dekraai hearing.
“This is the first of many that will be affected in Orange County,” he said.
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