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After unprecedented deal, key Orange County informant again faces life in prison

Oscar Daniel Moriel
(Courtesy the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

In December 2017, federal prosecutors visited Orange County Superior Court to support something even more unusual than their cross-jurisdictional courtroom presence: an exceptionally light sentence for an attempted murder defendant who once testified he’d killed “up to five, maybe six” people. 

Oscar Daniel Moriel originally faced life in prison under California’s three-strikes law when he was charged in 2005, but he spent more than a decade helping federal and state authorities as a jail informant in exchange for unprecedented leniency. Praised by federal and Orange County law enforcement officials as “instrumental” in securing convictions for major crimes, Moriel’s deal was described as fair justice for a man whose work against the Mexican Mafia mitigated his crimes and lessened his threat to public safety.

But three years later, 40-year-old Moriel is again facing life behind bars, accused of illegally packing a gun and ammunition as a convicted felon out of custody for the first time in 15 years.

It’s unclear, however, how his case will be affected by his decadelong role in a criminal justice scandal that’s the subject of an ongoing federal civil rights investigation, as the state attorney general’s office is prosecuting him instead of the Orange County district attorney’s office. And according to his lawyer, they’re hardly going easy on him: Brendon Marshall, the San Diego-based deputy attorney general who’s assigned the case insists it’s a life-in-prison case under the state’s three-strikes law, the same cataclysmic consequence Moriel spent so many years in jail trying to avoid.

“I don’t think three strikes apply; he will say it does,” Moriel’s court-appointed attorney, Christian Jensen, said in a brief phone interview.

Still, the district attorney’s office isn’t completely out of the loop: two Orange County prosecutors have filled in for Marshall on three occasions, and they handed a separate parole violation case against Moriel that resolved in October with a 180-day jail sentence that included credit for time served.

Moriel’s new trouble is another indictment of Orange County’s decades-long use of informants, which dismantled several major criminal cases and brought federal civil rights investigators from the Department of Justice’s D.C. office to Orange County for a still-ongoing investigation. Despite high praise from law enforcement that helped ensure he’d see freedom again, Moriel had been out of prison less than three months when he was arrested on a parole violation in August, then charged with the new crimes. State prosecutors say they have the case because it came from their own law enforcement division.

“This was never a case handled by the Orange County district attorney. We are handling prosecution because the California Department of Justice’s Division of Law Enforcement was the law enforcement agency involved,” according to an email from the attorney general’s press office. “We often handle cases that originate from our Department of Law Enforcement’s Bureau of Firearms. We filed approximately 74 cases in the last fiscal year.”

Moriel left jail Nov. 9 after posting $200,000 bail through a bond company. 

Scott Sanders, the assistant public defender who uncovered Moriel’s informant work, wondered why Moriel’s bail wasn’t higher than $200,000, because Orange County’s bail standards call for at least $1 million in cases with potential life sentences. But the standards state two prior strikes warrant $200,000, which is what Orange County Superior Court Commissioner Vickie Hix cited when she set the amount at Moriel’s Aug. 27 arraignment, according to a transcript of the proceedings. But Sanders said Moriel’s strikes include a so-called super strike that makes him eligible for a life sentence.

“It’s the responsibility of the prosecutorial agency to tell a judge who’s making the bail determination that the defendant found with a gun not only tried to kill someone in his last case but admitted to shooting and killing five or six other people,” Sanders said.

“He’s not owed anything else at this point. He shouldn’t get one more benefit,“ Sanders said.

Sanders first questioned Moriel in 2014 during his defense of Scott Dekraai in the Seal Beach mass murder, eliciting testimony about Moriel’s uncharged crimes and propensity for gunplay that included several drive-by shootings with unknown results.

Moriel isn’t the informant who talked to Dekraai in jail, but Sanders pointed to his work and prosecutors’ repeated failure to properly disclose it as evidence of a pattern of misconduct involving informants in Orange County. Judge Thomas Goethals, now a 4th District Court of Appeal justice, eventually dismissed the death penalty because of the misconduct and sentenced Dekraai to life in prison. Moriel’s newly publicized informant work had ripple effects beyond the Seal Beach murders too: A murder defendant he questioned was released on a probation deal in 2014, and another had his conviction vacated.

Simply put, the central problem was Moriel had questioned them after they’d been charged with crimes and didn’t have their attorneys with them. Given his status as a trained informant, Moriel was legally considered an agent of the government and thus couldn’t legally question anyone who was charged with a crime and represented by an attorney. Further, defense attorneys facing Moriel as a prosecution witness had a right to know information about him that could help their clients, such as a 2009 interview between Moriel and Santa Ana police detectives in which he speaks of grabbing “spots of my memory and [making] it seem like it was yesterday,” according to a transcript.

Sanders said the statement should have disqualified Moriel as a prosecution witness.

“He didn’t get a break because he gave credible testimony and reliable testimony.  He gave it because they made a deal with the devil and they decided to keep that deal,” Sanders said. “He went to them and said ‘I’m a liar; I’m willing to lie for you,’ and they said, ‘Sounds good.’”

Assistant District Attorney James Laird defended Moriel after Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue sentenced him in 2017, telling journalists the informant shouldn’t be blamed for law enforcement misconduct.

“He didn’t know about constitutional law. Other police departments and other police agencies should have known about it at the time, but it’s never been his fault for what other agencies did,” Laird said.

Lawrence Rosenthal, a Chapman University law professor who follows the informant scandal, said Moriel should have had a better support system upon release, given his years of incarceration and close relationship with law enforcement.

“The fact that this individual had problems is entirely predictable. The inability of the relevant officials to foresee this entire predictable problem and do what they could to forestall it is very discouraging,” Rosenthal said.

Moriel had already served three prison stints for threatening a witness, vehicle theft and attempted armed carjacking when he was sentenced in 2017 for second-degree attempted murder, so under the three-strikes law he faced life in prison. But Donahue instead sentenced him to 17 years at Laird’s request and with the support of assistant U.S. attorneys Robert J. Keenan and Joseph T. McNally.

The prosecutors praised Moriel’s informant work, calling him “instrumental”  in investigating Mexican Mafia power wars in the Orange County jail and testifying against a top Mexican Mafia leader. McNally said no one disputes Moriel “has committed very serious crimes ... But I do think that the court needs to take into account what he did with respect to the federal criminal investigation.”

Laird also told the judge that while Moriel testified in 2013 he’d killed “up to five, maybe six“ people, the Santa Ana Police Department had not located any victims of those purported murders.

Though sentenced to 17 years, Moriel was credited for time served in jail and for good behavior, so he completed his sentence and was released May 24, 2020, to be supervised by a parole officer for three years, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That parole officer filed a violation report Aug. 12 that led to the new case.

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment on Moriel’s new charges and his prosecutors’ previous support for him. O.C. D.A. spokeswoman Kim Edds directed questions about Moriel’s new case to the state attorney general’s office.

Meghann M. Cuniff is a contributor to Times OC. She’s on Twitter @meghanncuniff.

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