How Long Will Death Penalty Case Judge Tolerate Sheriff’s Defiance?

In a blistering Jan. 18 motion, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders outlined the “indefatigable drive” of Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) officials to mask “deeply entrenched” corruption and asked the judge in People v. Scott Dekraai to grant him access to presently hidden records he says reveal additional evidence of underhanded law enforcement efforts against his death penalty case client.

“The judicial process for obtaining mandated evidence from the OCSD is provably broken as shown most recently by the agency’s decision to withhold materials responsive to a subpoena issued by the defendant in this case,” Sanders wrote in his 56-page dispatch to Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals.

Specifically, the lawyer reported that six consecutive months of department Special Handling Log records are inexplicably missing, other records appear to be chronologically altered and that Sheriff Sandra Hutchens quietly obtained authorization in December 2014 to destroy informant evidence.

The sheriff’s timing is particularly alarming because Judge Goethals had days earlier decided to reopen hearings on OCSD informant corruption and, according to Sanders, she as well as Deputy County Counsel Elizabeth Pejeau hid the move in defiance of his subpoena.

Hutchens’ OCSD has refused to obey Goethals’ lawfully issued discovery orders in Dekraai for nearly 35,000 hours by hiding and doctoring evidence, having deputies commit perjury, destroying embarrassing records of unlawful activities, filing misleading sworn affidavits and conducting a public relations campaign hailing the tainted department’s righteousness.

Goethals gets another opportunity at a scheduled Jan. 20 hearing to either formally demand an end to the games or provide Hutchens an additional 700 or 800 hours for more stonewalling shenanigans that have debased the local criminal justice system.

Having understandably grown impatient, Sanders hopes Goethals will reiterate the agency is prohibited from destroying evidence in what has become nationally known as the Orange County jailhouse informant scandal and allow his inspection of records OCSD recently surrendered to the judge but wants permanently hidden from him.

“The OCSD has incessantly deceived and unlawfully withheld evidence from the Court and Dekraai,” he wrote in the motion. “Yet, when the Court is deciding what portions of the new cache of documents should be disclosed to Dekraai, the Court has necessarily relied extensively upon the representations made by the OCSD.”

To support his request for inclusion in the discovery process, Sanders advised the judge he found evidence from the limited records he has received that deputies doctored and deleted documents involving how OCSD conducted “capers” by illegally employing snitches to obtain incriminating statements from pre-trial inmates.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that the constitutional bans government officials—and their agents, like informants—from questioning defendants who have been charged with a crime and have legal representation.

As OC Weekly has repeatedly documented, Hutchens’ deputies ran a massive operation in defiance of that prohibition and lied about their conduct on Goethals’ witness stand in 2014 and 2015.

To the judge’s admitted astonishment, neither Hutchens nor District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, whose office benefitted from OCSD tactics, have punished deputies who committed brazen perjury in a death penalty case.

In late November, the California Court of Appeal upheld Goethals’ historic March 2015 decision to recuse Rackauckas and his entire office from Dekraai because of the likelihood the agency would continue ignoring basic ethical obligations.

The following month some relatives of the eight Seal Beach salon massacre victims in the case announced frustration with OCSD and OCDA cheating and called upon the California Attorney General’s office to seek a punishment of life in prison without the possibility of Dekraai’s parole.

Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles opened a formal investigation into both Orange County law enforcement agencies in mid-December.

On Jan. 3, the AG’s office announced it will not appeal the recusal, but remained mum on a punishment strategy.

Goethals, a former high-ranking homicide prosecutor, suggested last year he was on the verge of ordering new, special evidentiary hearings where Hutchens and deputies would undergo questioning about their conduct.

R. Scott Moxley’s award-winning investigative journalism has touched nerves for two decades. An angry congressman threatened to break Moxley’s knee caps. A dirty sheriff promised his critical reporting was irrelevant and then landed in prison. The U.S. House of Representatives debated his work. Federal prosecutors credited his stories for the arrest of a doctor who sold fake medicine to dying patients. Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.

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