O.C. judge orders hearings on jailhouse snitch allegations

An Orange County judge said Friday that he'll hear testimony on accusations that county prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies ran an illegal jailhouse informant operation that ensnared multiple inmates, including the man accused of killing eight people in a Seal Beach salon in 2011.

Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals said the allegations made by defense attorneys for Scott Dekraai deserve to be fully examined, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The judge indicated it may take weeks of testimony and evidence to ferret out the claims.

Defense attorneys say the district attorney's office oversaw an "unchecked and lawless custodial informant program" that resulted in systemic constitutional violations and kept defense attorneys in the dark about the so-called jailhouse snitches. 

They contend the prosecutor's actions were so egregious that the judge should dismiss the death penalty allegation against the accused Seal Beach shooter and bar the district attorney’s office from prosecuting the case.

Assistant Dist. Atty. Dan Wagner called the allegations “scurrilous and unfounded” and said he would respond to the specifics in court. A spokesman for the sheriff's department also declined to comment on specific allegations but said his office is prepared to cooperate with court proceedings.

Family members of the salon victims say they have grown frustrated with the lengthy delays, which defense attorneys say stem in part from their efforts to investigate the use of informants.

Paul Wilson, whose wife, Christy, was killed in the shootings, told the judge the delays are taking a toll on the families.

“We’re approaching three years,” he said. “This is killing us.”

The judge told Wilson he believes the defense is not deliberately trying to stall the case.

“These are not fabricated claims,” Goethals told Wilson. “We have to carefully, professionally, methodically deal with these motions. ... If I don’t handle it correctly, really we’re just wasting our time with the rest of the trial.”  

Goethals also indicated he is considering separating the two phases of the trial — guilt and death penalty — in order to help deal with some of the delays.

The defense allegations were laid out in a 505-page motion filed by Assistant Public Defenders Scott Sanders and Lisa Kopelman on Jan. 31.

The attorneys say Dekraai was ensnared by an informant referred to in court documents as Inmate F. The inmate was a well-known informant who had offered information in numerous cases, and Dekraai was deliberately placed in a cell next to him so that the informant could get him to talk, they said. 

One day after the inmate came forward, prosecutors placed a recording device in Dekraai's cell and recorded him continuously for 132 hours, according to court documents.

Once criminal proceedings have been initiated against a person, government efforts to deliberately elicit statements from them about that crime, including using a so-called jailhouse snitch to get them to talk, can violate a defendant’s 6th Amendment right to counsel, experts say.

The attorneys say the informant program went well beyond Dekraai’s case and includes multiple high-profile cases, including that of Daniel Patrick Wozniak, who faces death for allegedly killing two Orange Coast College students in 2010.

The attorneys also named another informant, Oscar Moriel, who they say operated similarly to Inmate F under the direction of deputies and prosecutors for years. In multiple cases involving Inmate F and Moriel, the attorneys allege, prosecutors worked to conceal information about the informants from defense attorneys.

“If Dekraai is to be sentenced to death, it should be because the facts and circumstances warrant it, not because the prosecution will stop at nothing to achieve a death verdict,” Sanders wrote in the motion.

Prosecutors said they expect to file their reply on Monday. The judge set another hearing for March 7 and said testimony could  begin by March 10.

Twitter: @PalomaEsquivel


Esquivel writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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