Legal experts call for U.S. investigation of Orange County use of jailhouse informants

More than 30 retired prosecutors, prominent professors and other legal heavyweights signed on to a letter this week asking for a federal investigation of the Orange County district attorney’s office and Orange County Sheriff’s Department over their use of jailhouse informants.

“We the undersigned share a firm belief in our criminal justice system and its overall ability to produce fair and reliable results,” according to the letter addressed to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “Compelling evidence of pervasive police and prosecutorial misconduct in Orange County, however, has caused us grave concern.”

The signers — including UC Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, former Los Angeles County district attorneys John Van de Kamp and Gil Garcetti and national legal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union — said they have turned to Lynch because the U.S. Department of Justice is the only independent entity that can investigate the scope of misconduct they believe may exist.

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

“As of the writing of this letter, it is fair to say that the criminal justice system in Orange County is in a state of crisis,” the letter states.

There appears to be evidence that prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies concealed a jailhouse informant program that may have violated defendants’ rights for decades, according to the letter.

The use of jailhouse informants isn’t illegal. The letter, however, cites allegations of misconduct including informants threatening defendants in order to produce confessions, jailers secretly housing informants with targeted inmates and prosecutors hiding information about the program from defense attorneys — including evidence that could have been used to challenge informants’ credibility.

“More troubling still, this all appears to be the tip of the iceberg,” the letter states.

Most of the allegations came to light during two recent high-profile murder prosecutions.

In the case of admitted Seal Beach mass killer Scott Dekraai, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals barred the entire district attorney’s office from the proceedings after he found that two sheriff’s deputies had either lied under oath or willfully misled the court when questioned about a secret system used to track informants.

In the double-murder case of Costa Mesa resident Daniel Wozniak, defense attorneys claimed they had uncovered a decades-long pattern of law enforcement concealing information about informants from defendants, but Superior Court Judge John Conley declined to sanction prosecutors. Most of the evidence presented wasn’t clear enough “to condemn or to exonerate” them, Conley wrote in an October ruling.

State prosecutors who were assigned to the Dekraai case after Goethals booted the district attorney’s office have appealed the judge’s ruling. They argued in court papers that prosecutors cannot be held responsible for sheriff’s deputies’ conduct.

The district attorney’s office disputed the premise of the letter to Lynch.

Allegations of past misconduct aired by public defender Scott Sanders — who represents both Wozniak and Dekraai — were based on unreliable or secondary sources such as newspaper accounts, said Jim Tanizaki, the senior assistant district attorney who oversees the prosecution of violent crimes in Orange County.

It would take months of reviewing each case that Sanders cited to reliably determine what happened, Tanizaki said.

He added that he couldn’t confirm whether his office is looking into any of the cases.

“We can’t comment on what we are doing internally in terms of the investigation,” he said. “All I can say is that when we find credible information that warrants a review and an investigation, we will undertake that.”

As for future prosecutions, Tanizaki said the district attorney has already bolstered training about informants.

In addition, any prosecutor who wants to use an informant will now have to win approval from District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, Tanizako said.

In a statement, the Sheriff’s Department said it too has taken action.

“During the court proceedings over the last several months, we have identified and acknowledged operational deficiencies and responded with immediate corrective action to include revised policies and improved training,” Lt. Jeff Hallock said in an email.

According to Hallock, the department would cooperate with a federal probe, but he cautioned against any further investigation until the California attorney general’s office finishes its own report on the topic.

Tanizaki said the district attorney’s office also would welcome any input from the Justice Department.

“We really have nothing to hide,” he said.

The letter disagrees, saying a federal probe is needed partially because the two agencies seem more interested in saving face than investigating any wrongdoing.

“The staunch refusal of the OCDA and the OCSD to acknowledge the possibility that members of their respective agencies may have intentionally deprived defendants of evidence, or that scores of as yet unidentified defendants have been denied due process, would appear to be driven more by concerns about self-preservation than impartial analysis,” the letter states.