The long-running Orange County informant scandal has taken a sharp turn towards reform and accountability this week. Last month, we compiled coverage of a California appellate court’s decision to affirm a trial judge’s removal of the entire OCDA office from a high-profile capital murder prosecution. Now, several years into the scandal, and just over one year after a prominent call from respected lawyers and law professors for a federal investigation, the Department of Justice has announced that it will look into what has been happening in Orange County.
According to the Department of Justice:
The investigation will focus on allegations that the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department systematically used jailhouse informants to elicit incriminating statements from specific inmates who had been charged and were represented by counsel, in violation of the Sixth Amendment. Additionally, the investigation will seek to determine whether the district attorney’s office committed systematic violations of defendants’ 14th Amendment due process rights under Brady v. Maryland, a 1963 Supreme Court case, by failing to disclose promises of leniency that would have substantially undermined the credibility of the informants’ trial testimony.
The news of the investigation is welcome amid concerns that the criminal justice system in Orange County is crumbling under the weight of its own dishonesty. As the New York Times reports,
The investigation has been set in motion more than three years after a public defender, Scott Sanders, first began to lay out evidence that prosecutors had obtained illegal jailhouse confessions and withheld information that could help defendants. The misconduct has been examined in a series of cases in criminal court, causing several murder convictions to be thrown out. Over a dozen criminal cases in the county have been affected, with reduced sentences or new trials. It is possible that more prosecutions will fall apart as the county is forced to disclose more information as a result of court rulings.
Amy Taxin of the Associated Press reported that both DA Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens—the two figures whose images have been most tarnished by the scandal—have pledged to cooperate with the DOJ. According to the Los Angeles Times, if the DOJ uncovers major problems—which feels like a foregone conclusion at this stage—“federal authorities could present Rackauckas with a set of reforms and offer him a stark choice: Make the changes or face a federal lawsuit.”
While the public now awaits the DOJ’s verdict, it is worth noting the role that lawyers and the media played in bringing the crisis to light. As Gustavo Arellano of the OC Weekly observes, the revelation of the scandal and the most recent developments would never have occurred without the relentless work of defense attorney Scott Sanders or without the penetrating work of the Weekly’s own R. Scott Moxley. As Arellano put it: “it was Moxley . . . who started reporting on the snitch scandal way before anyone else, whose own digging this year alone into OCDA incompetence has led to the overturning of at least three murder cases . . . .” One can hope that the DOJ’s resources and influence will help move Orange County through what has seemed like an accountability impasse, but we should not lose sight of the enormous lift it has been for Sanders, Moxley, and a handful of other local individuals to this point to push this scandal out of the shadows.