New court motion accuses Orange County D.A. of withholding important information from defendants

Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, seen in 2014.
Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, seen in 2014, said mass killer Scott Dekraai has been the victim of a “conspiracy of silence” among authorities.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders claims in a court motion filed this week that the Orange County district attorney’s office has for years systematically withheld information from a special handling log that could be crucial to defendants’ cases.

The log was used by deputies during former D.A. Tony Rackauckas’ tenure to record their interactions with jailhouse informants. It became crucial to the illegal jailhouse informant scandal, when Sanders discovered that the district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department were illegally using jailhouse informants to obtain confessions in 2016.

Sanders claims that D.A. Todd Spitzer, who took office in 2019, has continued to withhold the log’s information from defendants.

D.A. spokeswoman Kimberly Edds said in a phone interview that the district attorney’s office has been reviewing the special handling log and making notifications to defense attorneys when issues have been identified.

“When the current district attorney administration learned that the prior district attorney abandoned its action plan to review the Sheriff’s Special Handling Log (SH Log), District Attorney Spitzer immediately directed a top to bottom review of the SH Log by a team of veteran prosecutors,” Edds said in an emailed statement. “That review, which involves a complete review of every inmate listed in the log to determine if Brady and discovery obligations have been met, has been ongoing for the last year, and is nearing completion.”

Edds said the special handling log review is expected to be finished possibly at the end of this year or beginning of next year.

“What’s taking so long, you’re going very, very slowly,” Sanders said in an interview. “None of us buy it.”

Deputies initially denied the existence of the log during the 2014 and 2015 hearings for the case of Seal Beach mass murderer Scott Dekraai, though it eventually came to light. After Sanders exposed the district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department for using illegal jailhouse informants, a judge removed the death penalty from the table and kicked the district attorney’s office off of one of the biggest cases in Orange County history.

“The concealment of the [special handling log] was almost unquestionably the single most important factor in the decision of former Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals (and current Associate Justice of the Court of Appeal) to strike the death penalty as a sentencing option in People v. Dekraai,” Sanders says in the motion.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas speaks at a news conference in Santa Ana.
Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas speaks at a news conference in Santa Ana.
(Nick Ut / Associated Press)

The details of what unfolded with the special handling log was outlined in a July report from special prosecutor Pat Dixon. That report described how Rackauckas’ office announced in 2016 that it would seek to rectify the issue by reviewing the log and disclosing evidence of wrongdoing that had been kept secret.

Of the 1,157 pages in the log, only 243 redacted pages were turned over. Rackauckas put an experienced prosecutor in charge of the review, and prosecutors Dan Wagner and Scott Simmons were assigned to assist. Both were at the center of the illegal informant scandal as the lead attorneys on the Dekraai case.

Sanders described in his motion that the review was dropped and the log re-buried after an appellate ruling affirmed the recusal of the district attorney’s office.

”... It now appears that on or near the day of the landmark opinion affirming the OCDA’s recusal — furious prosecutors exacted their revenge on defendants by re-burying the SH Log and placing it even deeper in the ground,” the motion says.

According to the report, Spitzer learned of the prior office’s abandonment of the log review in October 2019 and restarted informing defendants of past violations.

Yet, Sanders claims that Spitzer has kept the logs buried.

His motion is asking for a recusal of the district attorney’s office from the drug possession-related case of defendant Robert Barr. Sanders said in the motion that the district attorney’s office is not turning over entries made in the log by investigator Jonathan Larson, who is a witness in Barr’s case.

Sanders said Larson is a former special handling deputy who made entries in the special handling log.

“Why, then, are we here four years later with the prosecutor’s office still unwilling to turn over entries from the SH Log made by J. Larson?” the motion says.

Sanders said in an interview with TimesOC that he doesn’t trust Spitzer to rectify the special handling log issue, in part, because of his track record with Wagner.

Sanders said in the motion that Wagner was “unquestionably one of the leaders in the intentional concealment of Brady evidence from the SH Log...”

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer is photographed at the Orange County District Attorney's office in Santa Ana.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Sanders said in an interview that just two months after Spitzer acknowledged that the special handling log concealment was an issue he would seek to correct, he was recorded in an online video praising Wagner and Simmons during a retirement party for the prosecutors.

“I have nothing but respect and admiration for them,” Spitzer said of Simmons and Wagner.

Sanders said Spitzer also promoted Wagner after he became D.A. in January 2019.

Other allegations

In the court motion, Sanders also accuses Spitzer and the district attorney’s press office of employing a “combination of brazenly false accusations, character assassination and intimidation” towards him.

An example detailed in the motion describes how the district attorney’s office responded to a protest held in August that was critical of Spitzer. The district attorney’s office announced that Sanders was running for district attorney and that the protest was being held to “further an agenda” to replace Spitzer.

Sanders denied that allegation.

The motion also says the district attorney’s office conveyed in September to the county Board of Supervisors that interim Public Defender Martin Schwarz should be replaced “with someone who will terminate Sanders or force him to stand down on issues related to OCDA misconduct.”

“The Orange County district attorney’s office files 70,000 cases a year,” Edds said in the statement. “We litigate legal motions in a court of law, not in the press as has been the pattern and practice of the Orange County public defender’s office. It is disappointing that Mr. Schwarz, as the interim, not permanent public defender, who reports to the Board of Supervisors, continues to allow one of his taxpayer-funded attorneys to hijack unrelated cases in order to further his own personal agenda.

“It is clear that Mr. Sanders cares more about advancing his own political and personal agenda than representing his client, which is the work the taxpayers pay him to do.”

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