Murder Suspects Walk Because of Secret Jailhouse Informant Program

Thursday, October 23, 2014
Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’s office really, really doesn’t want to reveal information in court about a network of jailhouse informants it utilizes.

So it is letting accused murderers walk rather than tell a judge, a jury or defense attorneys how evidence was gathered against them, according to media sources that say the unfolding scandal could affect a number of other cases.

District attorneys and police authorities regularly use jailhouse informants. It’s legal.

But the DA got in trouble last April when it became apparent—during death penalty proceedings against mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai—that he was violating so-called Brady rules governing the use of snitches. For instance, defense attorneys and the court need to be told they were used before a trial begins and what kind of deals were cut with them.

When Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals learned that didn’t happen in the Dekraai case, he convened an unusual special hearing and six months later issued a scathing report (pdf) about the extensive, ethically-challenged jailhouse informant network he found. The judge wrote of the “outrageous government conduct”:

“Many of the witnesses who testified during the course of this hearing were credibility challenged. These witnesses include current and former prosecutors, as well as current and former sworn peace officers. Some perhaps suffered from a failure of recollection. Other undoubtedly lied.”

Deputy Public Defender Scott Sanders wanted Goethals to bar the death penalty and throw the D.A. off the case. He didn’t get either one. But the judge said the prosecutor’s office repeatedly engaged in misconduct and showed a “cavalier attitude toward the constitutionally required Brady procedure.” That attitude was “patently inappropriate and legally inadequate.”

Fallout from the Dekraai case was immediate. The life sentence of convicted murderer Leonel Vega was vacated and he was granted a new trial. One of the key snitches in his case was also involved in the Dekraai case, as well as with other defendants.  

First-degree murder charges were dropped against Isaac Palacios in September and he was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree murder with time served after it became apparent there was a snitch problem. OC Weekly’s R. Scott Moxley said, “The case represents an alarming treasure trove of law enforcement cheating,” which it then detailed.

Also last month, prosecutors dismissed attempted murder and solicitation of murder charges against Joseph Martin Govey rather than confront accusations that they built their case on illegal use of informants.

Rackauckas, who has been the Orange County DA since 1999 and hadn’t faced an opponent in 12 years, was re-elected in June with 73.3% of the vote.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

More Murder Charges Dropped in Wake of DA Informants Case (by Rex Dalton, Voice of OC)

Misconduct In Jailhouse Snitch Program Letting Murder Suspects Walk Free (by Matt Ferner, Huffington Post)

Calif. Prosecutors Opt for Freeing Accused Murderers Instead of Transparency (by Radley Balko, Washington Post)

Police and Prosecutor-Cheating Kills Murder Case, Freeing Man Held in Jail for Years (by R. Scott Moxley, OC Weekly)

People of the State of California v. Scott Dekraai (Orange County Superior Court) (pdf)

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