The trial of mass-murderer Scott Dekraai, who killed eight people in a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011, should have been a crowning achievement for Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. Having secured a conviction for the deadliest killing spree in the county’s history, Rackauckas had the case lined up for a slam-dunk sentencing phase that would put Dekraai on track for the death penalty, a result that would surely increase the chances of another election victory for the veteran prosecutor.
In a scathing decision, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals employed the extraordinary remedy of removing Rackauckas and his deputies from the case, turning it over to the state attorney general’s office. The judge’s opinion cited the D.A.’s failure to produce evidence after repeated requests by Dekraai’s public defender, Scott Sanders, and the widespread misuse of jailhouse informants to gather evidence in violation of Dekraai’s constitutional rights. Jailers planted a microphone in his cell, and placed him in a cell next to the one of the most notorious paid snitches the county has ever known.
“Certain aspects of the district attorney’s performance in this case might be described as a comedy of errors but for the fact that it has been so sadly deficient,” Judge Goethals wrote. “There is nothing funny about that.”1
The judge concluded that the jailhouse snitch problem was so widespread that two deputies had lied on the witness stand to cover up the constitutional abuses.2
The Sordid History of Jailhouse Snitching
This is not the first time a California criminal case has been undermined by the reliance on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch. Earlier this year, and as a result of Sanders’ digging into the Orange County jail system during the Dekraai case, three other defendants in unrelated cases have had their murder charges either dropped or vacated.3
During the 1980s, 60 Minutes ran a segment on a jailhouse snitch named Leslie Vernon White. He manipulated massive holes in security by calling prosecutors and passing himself off as an officer to gain information about other inmates’ cases, and then would trade information to prosecutors to gain favors, lenient treatment, and payment.
White’s story led to the reexamination of more than 225 cases for lax standards involving the use of informant testimony. In response, California enacted tougher policies, requiring that the senior assistant state attorney general review and approve the testimony based on whether the conversation is recorded, and whether the snitch has a record of reliability. The law also prevents testimony that is uncorroborated from being used in court.
The Motives of a Snitch
The use of jailhouse informant testimony is fraught with problems, not the least of which is the fact that an informant’s testimony is a bargaining chip that gives informants every incentive to lie, whether to gain lenient treatment for his or her own crimes or a reduction in his or her sentence. Additionally, the prosecution is not required to inform the jury of the informant’s criminal history, nor is the jury usually told what benefit the informant received for his testimony. Judges are not required to instruct the jury to consider whether the testimony of a criminal informant may be unreliable.
While a motive to lie does not necessarily mean that the informant is lying, there is a large group of innocent people who have been put in prison due to jailhouse snitch testimony. Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions found that since 1970, 51 of the 111 death penalty inmates that were later exonerated were likely convicted based on the testimony of an informant who had an “incentive to lie.”4
The Critical Importance of Hiring an Experienced Attorney
Our justice system is an adversarial one, and this sometimes leads to prosecutors taking shortcuts because securing a win often takes priority over securing justice. When prosecutors cannot be trusted to operate according to the law in using a jailhouse informant, it takes a seasoned attorney to fight against that kind of serious misconduct. An experienced attorney will comb through every detail of the prosecution’s case and leave no corner of it unexamined. Hiring an attorney tenacious enough to do that can often make the difference between going free and going to prison.
Contact the Criminal Defense Attorneys at Wallin & Klarich Today
If you are facing criminal charges, you need the help of an experienced and aggressive criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. At Wallin & Klarich, our attorneys have over 30 years of experience fighting for the rights of criminal defendants. We work tirelessly to help our clients obtain the best possible outcome in their case. Let us help you, too. Contact us today for a free, no obligation phone consultation.
With offices in Orange County, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura, Victorville, West Covina, San Diego, Torrance and Sherman Oaks., there is an experienced Wallin & Klarich criminal defense available near you no matter where you work or live.
Call us today at (888) 280-6839 for a free phone consultation. We will be there when you call.
1. [Christopher Goffard, “Orange County D.A. is removed from Scott Dekraai murder trial,” The Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2015, available at http://www.latimes.com/local/orangecounty/la-me-jailhouse-snitch-20150313-story.html.]↩
2. [Tony Saavedra, Kelly Puente, and Tom Berg, “From a high school dropout to Orange County’s D.A.: Tony Rackauckas has always been a fighter, but can he withstand the latest punch?” The Orange County Register, March 17, 2015, available at http://www.ocregister.com/articles/rackauckas-654482-attorney-case.html.]↩
3. [Rex Dalton, “Judge Recuses Himself From Wozniak Case,” Voice of OC, January 28, 2015, available at http://voiceofoc.org/2015/01/judge-recuses-himself-from-wozniak-case/.]↩
4. [“The Snitch System,” Northwestern University School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions, Winter 2004-2005, available at http://www.law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/wrongfulconvictions/documents/SnitchSystemBooklet.pdf.]↩