By Kelly Puente and Tony Saavedra / Staff Writers
Nov. 19, 2015
Updated Nov. 20, 2015 – 12:36 p.m.
After four sheriff’s deputies refused to testify in court on grounds of self-incrimination, an Orange County judge on Wednesday granted a new trial for a gang member convicted of murder.
Superior Court Judge Richard King said defendant Eric Ortiz could not receive a fair hearing on his complaints that he was set up by a jailhouse informant because deputies declined to testify. The ruling marks the latest local case to fall apart following allegations that local prosecutors and police misused jailhouse informants.
Prosecutors declined to reveal their next step in the case against 26-year-old Ortiz, who was convicted in January for gunning down a man in Santa Ana in 2006.
“We are going to explore our legal remedies,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
Ortiz’s attorney, Rudy Loewenstein, argued in court that deputies and prosecutors conspired to illegally place Ortiz next to a jailhouse informant to gain incriminating statements.
“Justice has been served,” Loewenstein said Wednesday. “I’m pumped.”
A new trial date could be set as soon as today.
After Lowenstein petitioned for a new trial, citing the informant issue, King agreed to hold a hearing on the issue. But that hearing hit a snag last month when Orange County Sheriff’s deputies Seth Tunstall, Benjamin Garcia, William Grover and Bryan Larson invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
In his ruling, issued Wednesday, King said he cannot determine whether the Ortiz case might have been affected by misconduct if four deputies with relevant information won’t testify.
“These deputies would definitely have provided material information,” King wrote.
The deputies refused to testify in the Ortiz hearing because of misconduct allegations raised in another case involving jailers, the jail’s record-keeping system and the use of jailhouse snitches.
In March, another judge removed the entire staff of the District Attorney’s Office from the penalty phase in the trial of Scott Dekraai, who admitted killing eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011.
In that ruling, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said deputies Tunstall and Garcia, who both worked in the Orange County Jail as part of a special handling unit, “either intentionally lied or willfully withheld material evidence” about the existence of so-called TRED records, which log movements of inmates, including jailhouse informants.
Authorities have not said whether the deputies will face charges as a result of their testimony in the Dekraai case.
Since Goethals’ ruling, Tunstall, a 14-year veteran and a statewide expert on the Mexican Mafia, also has refused to testify as a key witness in other cases, forcing prosecutors to reconsider charges.
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