When the U.S. Department of Justice announced last month that it was launching an inquiry into the Orange County District Attorney’s office, it came as a surprise to former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp. He was surprised because he and UC Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky had sent a letter to the DOJ a year ago, asking for that very thing.
“We felt it was important to have an outside independent agency because this is a substantial matter that needs to be looked at,” Van de Kamp said. “It appeared to be a widespread practice that had been going on for years, using jailhouse informants without disclosure. It came to light because of the Dekraai case, but we thought it was safe to raise the issue of how many other cases may have been affected.”
The case that Van de Kamp refers to is the capital murder trial of Scott Dekraai, who is accused of killing eight people, and wounding one at a salon in Seal Beach in 2011. Dekraai pleaded guilty, and while he was in custody in the Orange County Jail, the DA’s office and the sheriff’s department allegedly used jailhouse informants to obtain evidence against him, and illegally recorded his conversations with the informants. The Superior Court judge presiding over the case was so dismayed by the situation he took the case out of the hands of the DA’s office and assigned it to the California Attorney General’s office to prosecute. The AG’s office appealed the ruling, but earlier this month the California Court of Appeals upheld the decision, and the AG’s office announced it would not appeal again. The AG’s office will handle the case, and attempt to get a death sentence for Dekraai, despite the wishes of the victims’ families who would prefer to have the case settled with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
According to Van de Kamp, this is hardly an isolated incident, and the use of informants and illegal taping of conversations has been going on for years. In their letter to DOJ, Van de Kamp and Chemerinsky refer to an editorial that appeared in the NY Times in September 2015 that described a “scheme that may go back as far as 30 years” where “prosecutors and the county sheriff’s department have elicited illegal jailhouse confessions, failed to turn over evidence that is favorable to defendants and lied repeatedly in court about what they did.”
As for the DOJ, “The investigation will focus on allegations that the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department systematically used jailhouse informants to elicit incriminating statements from specific inmates who had been charged and were represented by counsel, in violation of the Sixth Amendment,” the department says in its statement.