Orange County District Attorney

By Shaun King
Friday, May 29, 2015 at 11:26 AM PDT

Between San Diego and Los Angeles is Orange County, California. With more than 3 million residents, it’s larger than 21 states. If Orange County were a separate country, its economy would be the 45th largest in the world. Now known for Disneyland, the county may soon be known for having one of the most corrupt justice systems in the world. The width and depth and duration of the corruption truly boggles the mind. A case that should’ve been open and shut has blown the lid off some deep secrets.

On October 12, 2011, Orange County experienced the deadliest mass killing in its modern history. Scott Dekraai killed 8 people, including his ex-wife, in a Seal Beach beauty salon. He was arrested wearing full body armor just a few blocks away. Without a doubt, Dekraai was the perpetrator. A dozen surviving witnesses saw him. He admitted to the shooting early on. Yet, nearly four years later, the case against him has all but fallen apart.

It turns out that prosecutors and police officers committed an egregious violation of Dekraai’s rights—so much so that Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals shocked everyone and removed the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, and all 250 prosecutors, from having anything more to do with the case.

The legal wrangling involved how Dekraai came to occupy a jail cell next to a prolific jailhouse informant. Prosecutors and jailers said it was a coincidence, but Dekraai’s attorney insisted it was part of a widespread operation to elicit incriminating remarks from defendants who were represented by lawyers, a violation of their rights.

Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas’ conflict of interest in the Dekraai case “is not imaginary,” the judge wrote. “It apparently stems from his loyalty to his law enforcement partners at the expense of his other constitutional and statutory obligations.”

It turns out that Orange County has a secret system of evidence manufacturing and storage that they have used in countless cases, and the collusion is unraveling dozens of cases and may soon unravel the careers of countless prosecutors and law enforcement officers who’ve maintained it for decades. It’s called TRED.

In recent months, we’ve learned, over the objections of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD), that the agency created TRED, a computerized records system in which deputies store information about in-custody defendants, including informants. Some of the data is trivial; other pieces contain vital, exculpatory evidence. But for a quarter of a century, OCSD management deemed TRED beyond the reach of any outside authority. In Dekraai, deputies Ben Garcia and Seth Tunstall committed perjury to hide the mere existence of TRED. Those lies didn’t originate from blind loyalty, however. The concealed records show how prosecution teams slyly trampled the constitutional rights of defendants by employing informants—and then keeping clueless judges, juries and defense lawyers.

These violations are beginning to cause cases all over the county to crumble.

Other cases involving informants who were eliciting illegal confessions have emerged, entire cases have collapsed, and more may follow. The story goes way back to the 1980s, as R. Scott Moxley explains at length in the OC Weekly, to a prosecutorial scandal that ended in the execution of one defendant and a lengthy sentence for his alleged co-conspirator. Their convictions were based on the testimony of various jailhouse informants even though they told conflicting stories. That scandal rocked the area then, and this new one shows eerie parallels.

Leonel Vega, a notorious gang member, was convicted of murdering a 17-year-old and was due to get life without possibility of parole. He may now be released in 2019 because of violations of his rights.

Similarly, another case—one of the most egregious murders in the history of the county—has been bungled. Jeanette Espeleta, eight months pregnant, was kidnapped and murdered, but the DA’s office there has done the unthinkable.

Similar to Dekraai, government actors took the easily solvable Espeleta murder and unnecessarily cheated. In some ways, the Espeleta case is worse than the lingering aforementioned death-penalty trial that has garnered national attention. During the past 17 years, prosecution teams hid exculpatory evidence, secured tainted testimony, won convictions, and then duped state appellate-court justices into believing they never swerved from their sworn oaths. It’s an alarming situation that’s not based on speculation. While most prosecutors and cops I see in court are honest, some even significantly underpaid for their work, the record alone in the Espeleta mess proves OC’s criminal-justice system needs a cleansing.

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