Report Finds 'Failure of Leadership' by Orange County District Attorney's Office in Jailhouse Informant Scandal

A new report by a special committee created by Orange County, California District Attorney Tony Rackauckas (pictured) cites a "failure of leadership" as the root cause of a multi-decade history of prosecutorial misconduct involving jailhouse informants. Documents obtained by defense lawyers and The Orange County Register had revealed what the paper called "a secret and well-organized network of snitches" that had been hidden from defense counsel and the courts. In May 2015, California Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals disqualified the entire Orange County District Attorney's office from participating in the capital trial of Scott Dekraai after Dekraai's attorneys alleged that prosecutors had deliberately violated his constitutional rights by arranging to place him in a cell near an informant who had been instructed to elicit incriminating statements. The court found that the county's prosecutors had repeatedly violated court orders to disclose information about informants, hiding the existence of an intricate computerized data base tracking how they were used. The prosecutor's office also faces criticism for allegedly failing to disclose benefits it provided to an informant - who now says she provided false testimony - in the 1997 capital trial of John Abel. After the informant scandal became public, Rackauckas established a special committee of legal experts to investigate the office's practices and suggest reforms. The committee's report, released on December 30, criticized the office for a "win-at-all-costs mentality," and concludes, "There is an immediate need for stronger leadership, training, supervision, mentoring, and oversight to change the culture." In 2012, Orange County had the 6th largest county death row in the US and was part of the 2% of US counties responsible for more than half of the country's death row. Since then, it has produced 5 more death sentences, more than all California counties except Riverside and Los Angeles.

Among the 10 recommendations made in the report are revising policies regarding use of jailhouse informants, providing additional training on the use of informants and discovery requirements, and establishing a Conviction Integrity Unit and Chief Ethics Officer within the prosecutor's office. During a news conference following the release of the report, Rackauckas said he did not believe any of the prosecutors who failed to disclose information to defendants about the misuse of informants had acted intentionally and that no one in his office had been disciplined as a result of the controversy. “You don't punish someone for making a mistake,” he said.

(M. Hamilton and J. Queally, "'Failure of leadership' at the Orange County D.A.'s office led to informant issues, report says," Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2016; D. Ferrell and T. Saavedra, "Accountability questions dog D.A. Tony Rackauckas and O.C.'s justice system," Orange County Register, December 30, 2015, updated January 5, 2016; J. Tillman, "Inside the snitch tank, part 3: The care and feeding of a jailhouse informant," Orange County Register, November 25, 2015, updated January 5, 2016.) Read the full report. See Arbitrariness and Prosecutorial Misconduct.