We have been following the long-running, slow-motion train-wreck of a scandal unfolding in the Orange County criminal justice system for a few years now. We began covering the exposure of the county’s massive undisclosed snitch network in 2014, explored how its revelation has caused several high-profile prosecutions to collapse, covered the national call for a Department of Justice investigation into the crisis, and took note when the judge presiding over the case which exposed the crisis issued a ruling that removed the Orange County District Attorney’s (“OCDA”) office from the case. The scandal is multi-dimensional and perhaps unprecedented in scope, and the story’s twists and turns have been covered exhaustively by the Orange County Weekly, which has created a webpage with links to the dozens of stories the snafu has generated.
Yesterday, a California appellate court issued a ruling on the State’s appeal of Judge Goethals’s decision to remove the entire OCDA from the Dekraai case. Despite having a representative sit in on many of the Dekraai hearings and witnessing first-hand the dishonesty of the Sheriff and OCDA in their representations, Attorney General Kamala Harris chose to appeal Judge Goethals’s ruling. The appellate court’s blistering opinion not only affirms the lower court’s order but also underscores the significance of the scandal and takes to task the AG’s office for its handling of the case. We have excerpted some of the most resounding parts of the opinion here
- “On the last page of the Attorney General’s reply brief it states, “The trial court’s order recusing the OCDA from prosecuting Dekraai’s penalty phase trial was a remedy in search of a conflict.” The court recused the OCDA only after lengthy evidentiary hearings where it heard a steady stream of evidence regarding improper conduct by the prosecution team. To suggest the trial judge prejudged the case is reckless and grossly unfair. These proceedings were a search for the truth. The order is affirmed.” (emphasis in the original)
- “Based on the entire record, we conclude substantial evidence supported the trial court’s conclusion OCDA had an actual conflict because its loyalty to OCSD [Sheriff’s Department] prevented the OCDA from performing its constitutional and statutory obligations in this case.”
- “Needless to say, there was overwhelming evidence supporting the trial court’s conclusion Garcia and Tunstall [sheriff’s deputies] intentionally lied or willfully withheld information at the first hearing and they lacked credibility.”
- “There is no legitimate reason for the OCSD to create and maintain such a sophisticated, synchronized, and well-documented CI [confidential informant] program other than to obtain statements that will benefit prosecutions. Given the benefit the OCDA received from OCSD’s CI program over the years, it would not be unreasonable to conclude the OCDA was aware of the CI program and at the very least should have inquired about CIs housing and movements.”
- “Not only did the OCDA intentionally or negligently ignore the OCSD’s violations of targeted defendants’ constitutional rights, but the OCDA on its own violated targeted defendants’ constitutional rights through its participation in the CI program.”
While this ruling should resolve one part of one important case, recent revelations about another secret “special handling” database maintained by the OCSD continue to implicate the Sheriff’s office and the OCDA in a systemic, ongoing, and unremitting program to violate the constitutional rights of countless defendants in the county. Now that it appears unlikely that President Obama’s DOJ will intervene—and even more unlikely that President-elect Trump’s would—the local judiciary bears the full weight of dealing with the scandal in the short-term. Long-term, the legislature and the people need to take action. Without that, the criminal justice system in Orange County will remain little more than a farce.