SANTA ANA (AP) — The Orange County district attorney’s office has formed a special committee to review its use of jailhouse informants following misconduct allegations that have sidetracked some criminal cases.
The committee of independent experts has begun looking into its practices and plans to release its recommendations by year’s end, the DA’s office announced Monday.
The committee includes a retired Orange County judge, a former county Bar Association president, a retired Los Angeles County prosecutor and an ethics lawyer. A law school professor is a committee adviser.
The committee will help the district attorney’s office “improve the program and avoid any future mistakes,” District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in a statement. “I want the public, the bench, and the bar to know that our prosecutions of murderers and violent criminal street gang members are tough but fair.”
The DA’s office already has made changes, including new guidelines for using jailhouse informants and creating an in-house committee headed by Rackauckas to approve their use in individual cases.
“An investigator isn’t going to talk a deputy (prosecutor) into doing something he probably shouldn’t do,” Rackauckas told the Orange County Register.
The changes follow allegations that prosecutors tried to cover up a program that trained snitches to cozy up to high-profile defendants and get information. It is illegal for jailhouse informants to actively question suspects who have lawyers or who have requested legal representation.
Last year, attorney Scott Sanders alleged that an informant was improperly used to question his client, Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to killing his ex-wife and seven others in a 2011 shooting at a Seal Beach hair salon. Sanders also said authorities failed to turn over evidence to defense attorneys and lied on the witness stand.
In March, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals removed the DA’s office from the death penalty case and turned it over to the California attorney general’s office. The judge concluded that two county sheriff’s deputies lied or withheld evidence on the stand and that the county prosecutor was responsible for their actions.
Sanders said there have been decades of misconduct that the new committee and other changes won’t address.
“Laws have been ignored because of a culture that overvalues winning, and changes in procedures — although welcomed — will not remedy this fundamental problem,” he said in a statement.
Several other criminal cases have been affected by the allegations. In one, a gang member’s murder conviction for a 2004 killing was set aside. He later took a plea deal and got 15 years in prison instead of the previous life sentence.