Orange County, which has sentenced the third largest number of people to death of any county in California over the last five years, is under scrutiny following revelations of a “snitch network” used by county prosecutors in murder cases. Defendants now allege that information about jailhouse informants relied on by the state has been suppressed in numerous cases.
A network of jailhouse informants used by the state to testify about the alleged admissions of other inmates in murder cases has been exposed over the course of the last few months through evidentiary hearings in the murder case of Scott Evans Dekraai. During the Dekraai hearing, defense attorneys have alleged that Deputy District Attorney Erik S. Petersen hasn’t properly disclosed notes, reports and tapes by informants to them as required under Brady v. Maryland. The Los Angeles Times reports:
Dekraai’s defense attorneys sought the hearing to prove their allegations that prosecutors and law enforcement for years engaged in a pattern of unconstitutionally deploying jailhouse snitches and routinely concealing their work from defense attorneys.
The hearing is in its third month and is set to conclude on today.
Early last week, the murder conviction of Leonel Santiago Vega, who was also prosecuted by Petersen, was tossed out by an Orange County judge after it was discovered that the District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department “improperly used jailhouse informants to secure damaging admissions and failed to properly turn over details about the informants to Vega’s defense attorney.” The Los Angeles Times reports:
Vega was convicted based largely on the testimony of three informants, including a jailhouse snitch named Oscar Moriel, a longtime gang member who testified during the Dekraai hearing that he may have killed up to six people but was hoping his informant work would lead to his release…
During the Dekraai hearing it was revealed that Moriel took at least 300 pages of notes but that only four pages were turned over to Vega’s defense attorneys…
The undisclosed evidence showed that Moriel demanded money and asked for assistance joining the military in exchange for his help, [Vega’s attorney] Melnik said. It also showed that Vega had been recorded in his jail cell.
Melnik said he believes more convictions will be vacated based on revelations in the Dekraai hearing.
Prosecutors acknowledged that more evidence should have been turned over in the case but said they were prevented by certain federal officials at the time of trial. They agreed to vacate Vega’s current conviction and then retry him.
Prosecutors Allege Bias
Unsurprisingly, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office isn’t happy about being investigated for misconduct. Prosecutors attempted to “judge shop” last month by refusing to try cases in front of Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who has been holding the Dekraai hearings in his court. The Orange County Register reports that though Goethals hasn’t yet ruled on the Brady allegations, “he has allowed extensive testimony and ordered prosecutors to turn over huge amounts of new evidence. On the witness stand under questioning by the defense, prosecutors have testified they didn’t turn over some evidence to defendants in several murder cases.”
Orange County prosecutors allege that Goethals is biased against their office. The OC Register has recorded three times in recent months where prosecutors have filed for Goethals’ recusal. Under California law, cases must be reassigned the first time an attorney on either side files a motion to disqualify against a judge.
Judge Disputes Prosecutors’ Story
However, it’s not just Goethals who is taking issue with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and its handling of the issue.
Last Thursday, Judge Terri K. Flynn-Peister testified that the DA’s office wasn’t being truthful when its prosecutors told the Court that they did not turn information over in the Vega case because federal officials didn’t allow them to.
At the time of Vega’s trial, Flynn-Peister was an assistant U.S. Attorney spearheading the prosecution of gang-related crime in Orange County. Deputy District Attorney Peterson testified that Flynn-Peister had thwarted the efforts of his office to turn over exculpatory evidence by arguing that the informant in the case needed to be protected. The Voice of OC reports that Flynn-Peister denied Petersen’s version of events:
“I would recall if I was asked about a number of pages,” Flynn-Peister said in a rare instance of a sitting Superior Court judge taking the stand in her own jurisdiction…
During Thursday’s three-hour hearing, Deputy District Attorney Howard Gundy sought to break down Flynn-Peister’s testimony, repeatedly asking her virtually the same questions.
But Flynn-Peister — who spent a decade prosecuting both Mexican Mafia and Aryan prison gang members — consistently countered the queries.
Though the Dekraii evidentiary hearing is set to come to a close next week, this will not likely be the last we hear about undisclosed evidence in Orange County.
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