Sandra Hutchens

O.C. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens

Published: Dec. 5, 2014 Updated: 8:44 p.m.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens this week joined the county’s top prosecutor in defending the use of jailhouse informants placed in cells wired to capture recorded confessions.

“The use of jailhouse informants has proven to be very effective,” Hutchens said. “But you’ve got to be careful not to be taken by those guys. They’re pretty sophisticated.”

Hutchens, in an interview, weighed in on the legal battle over the surreptitious use of informants to question suspects after their arrest and the prosecution’s withholding of evidence retrieved from those informants.

Two of the most prolific informants at jails in Orange and Los Angeles counties earned more than $70,000 apiece, paid by local police agencies, and received lenient treatment in cases that could have sent them to prison for life, according to documents obtained by the Register. Perks included Del Taco deliveries, cigarettes, PlayStation 3 and private cable TV.

The sheriff conceded her department could have benefited from better organization and training of jail deputies in how to handle informants working for the police.

“We didn’t have a comprehensive plan for handling informants,” Hutchens said. “The department has to take responsibility for not having a good policy in place. We do now.”

Prosecutors and police have relied on a secret network of jail informants to coax confessions from inmates in scores of cases and then in some of those cases failed to disclose the evidence to defense attorneys. The practice emerged earlier this year when authorities used an informant to obtain information from Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to gunning down eight people at a Seal Beach salon but is fighting a potential death sentence.

His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, has filed a series of legal motions challenging the use of jailhouse snitches and the withholding of evidence in his bid to keep Dekraai from death row.

Under persistent questioning by Sanders, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office conceded that evidence in other felony cases in addition to Dekraai’s inadvertently had been withheld from defense attorneys. These “mistakes,” as termed by prosecutors, have caused at least three murder cases to unravel. And more cases are being scrutinized.

Like District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, Sheriff Hutchens said this week some evidence was not given to defense attorneys in a timely manner, but it was not intentional.

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