The press has been filled in the past year with infamous examples of police misconduct whether we are to talk about the deaths Freddie Gray, Michael Brown or of Los Angeles resident Ezell Ford in August 2014. But what if a court found deep-seated corruption within an entire County Prosecutor’s Office . . . is not that something that the public should be discussing? What does learning that a District Attorney’s Office and the police who support it have been systematically depriving thousands of defendants of their Constitutional rights say about our society?
Well now we need to answer that question because in March of this year, Orange County Judge Timothy Goethals disqualified District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and all 250 Assistant District Attorneys in Orange County from prosecuting a murder trial. The newest allegations of corruption began on October 12, 2011 when Scott Dekraai killed 8 people at a beauty salon in Seal Beach, committing the worst mass-murder in Orange County history. This should have been an easy case – there were over a dozen eyewitnesses that identified Dekraai, he was found a few blocks from the scene of the crime in Kevlar and other body armor and he admitted to committing the shooting. Yet Judge Goethals has learned that over the course of the discovery in this case that county prosecutors and Sheriff’s deputies placed Dekraai in a cell with an informant in order to elicit an illegal confession.
Judge Goethals learned through the course of his investigation into these allegations, that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has maintained system of computerized records of in-custody defendants (known as “TRED”). TRED has allowed Sheriff’s deputies in coordination with the County District Attorney’s office to place high-value, in-custody defendants with informants in order to have the informant obtain an illegal confession from the defendant. In addition, the county prosecutors have failed to provide exculpatory evidence (evidence that tends to prove that the defendant is innocent) to the Defendant and the Court in dozens, possibly hundreds or thousands of cases. In California, the law requires that the prosecution turn over this evidence to the defendant.
The Orange County District Attorney’s office and Sheriff’s Department’s may have been conducting these illegal acts for decades as the “TRED” system has been in place since the late 1980’s. The potential magnitude of the corruption in the Orange County DA’s office is staggering. The violations committed by the District Attorney could lead to the release of dozens of high-profile defendants, such as the murderer of 8-month pregnant Jeanette Espeleta. Even more worrying though is that the conduct of the County prosecutors may lead to mass disbarment of the attorneys in that office, which could leave Orange County without a functioning District Attorney’s Office.
The evidence against Orange County District Attorney’s Office continues to mount. At the moment, California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris is appealing Judge Goethals’ disqualification of all of Orange County’s prosecutors. To date, the California State government and the Feds have not begun investigating the allegations about the DA’s Office. We should expect some continuing dramatic developments though as Criminal Defense Attorneys begin to tear into the truth about these allegations and try to get their clients released from jail.
Yet before then should not we as a society (whether we live in Orange County, CA or not) begin to look into the criminal justice system in America? Cleveland, Ohio has recently been the subject of a major U.S. Justice Department investigation for how its police treats African-American suspects. The US DOJ found that Cleveland’s police regularly brutalized suspects. With this scandal in Orange County, we have another example of systematic abuse of people by the criminal justice system. Perhaps, it is time we as a country reexamine whether the criminal justice system that we have put in place is doing its job well?
What do you think?