Having long ago proved her lack of character, it’s fitting that as one of her final acts as the sheriff of Orange County, retiring Sandra Hutchens would try to cheat yet another defendant of his right to a fair trial. We learned during Hutchens’ jailhouse-informant scandal that she has contempt for lawfully issued court orders. In People v. Dekraai, a death-penalty case, the sheriff spent four years refusing to obey Judge Thomas M. Goethals’ exasperated commands to surrender evidence, which contained proof of her department’s systemic unconstitutional ploys against pretrial defendants.
Days before her early 2019 departure, the remorseless Hutchens managed to squeeze in an additional scandal. This time, her mess played out in Orange County’s West Court, located near Little Saigon. And as we’ve come to expect, her recalcitrance involves her specialties: hiding court-ordered records, playing dumb and defending corruption.
Hutchens managed to perform all three tactics early in People v. Sayem. The case would be nothing more than a relatively routine public-intoxication matter, but Deputy Michael Devitt decided to beat Mohamed Sayem unconscious, then justify the use of force by claiming the unarmed defendant had attacked him. Devitt has given multiple, self-serving versions of events that don’t match the footage captured on a patrol vehicle’s dashcam.
Scott Sanders, the assistant public defender who represents Sayem, is also the person who discovered the sheriff’s snitch scandal. When Sanders learned of the glaring discrepancies in the case, he alerted the media, which drove Hutchens nuts. She wrote a letter. She produced a video. She gave interviews. As if her wishes were reality, she proclaimed the dashcam footage fully supported Devitt’s shifting stories. To question the use of force was, she insisted, nothing but “anti-law enforcement” sentiment.
“I work in a field of facts,” a beleaguered, sputtering Hutchens said in her three-minute video presentation that labeled Sanders’ defense of Sayem as “egregious.”
With weeks left in her term, the sheriff saw her last opportunity to give her middle finger to this defense attorney. Kayla Watson, the deputy county counsel who represents Hutchens, came to Superior Court Judge Kevin Haskins’ courtroom pretending to be in full compliance with his discovery orders. Haskins held an in-camera, or private, hearing and emerged without seeing any “use of force” reports. Sanders balked, and during a Dec. 21 session held one week later, Watson tried to explain away the missing-records issue by claiming Sanders had requested only “excessive force” records tied to the incident, not “use of force” documents.
Haskins, who ordered the report turned over to the defense attorney, appeared leery of Watson’s explanation but said he didn’t see anything nefarious under way. Sanders did, responding, “I find it hard to believe that [the report was withheld] in good faith.”
A frowning Watson posed offended that her integrity had been challenged. Questioned by the judge to expound on her reasons for withholding the document, she said she must not have understood his ruling on the topic and reiterated her belief that the defense wasn’t legally entitled to the information. “It’s not up to Scott Sanders to determine in this case what is appropriate,” Watson said.
Haskins, a former prosecutor, weighed in, stating he didn’t agree with Watson’s hairsplitting between excessive-force and use-of-force records; all of them should have been surrendered to him for a private review.
Sanders then raised the issue of missing audio recordings tied to the case, alerting the judge that one of his sources inside Hutchens’ department told him it’s standard practice to record internal interviews. Watson and Sergeant Anthony Patella left the courtroom for three minutes before advising Haskins that they “weren’t aware” of any such records.
“I’m troubled by ‘not aware,’” the judge replied, who then learned how the sheriff’s department cleverly compartmentalizes custodians of records and that Patella had only searched for compliant records in the personnel office, not the entire organization. He asked Watson who was going to conduct a thorough search.
“I’d have to look into it,” she answered.
Haskins then wanted to make sure the deputy county counsel understood he wants all notes, tapes, summaries and reports produced in “a somewhat broad search.”
Clearly flustered, Watson finished the hearing by demanding that Sanders identify his source, but the judge refused to entertain the absurd notion. He ordered the parties to return on Jan. 18. By that point, Hutchens will be in retirement collecting way more than a couple of hundred thousand taxpayer dollars per year for the rest of her life.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott 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; earned six dozen other reporting awards; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.