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How Kamala Harris’ Orange County, California “Snitch” Scandal Investigation Imploded

by Derek Gilna

Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president, has long touted her law enforcement background in winning election to the offices of district attorney, California attorney general, and U.S. senator. But, serious questions have been raised about an investigation her office launched in 2015 regarding corruption in the Orange County jail.

That investigation quietly ended without any charges filed against law enforcement personnel who perjured themselves and compromised many criminal trials, resulting in numerous retrials and dismissals, as detailed by the Los Angeles Times in a January 20, 2020 story.

“Though the scandal sparked a U.S. Department of Justice investigation and led to retrials for dozens of defendants, including convicted murderers, the unexplained conclusion of the state inquiry has stirred frustration that many key players will escape accountability, the Times said.

The investigation began after a public defender probed the Orange County Sheriff’s Office practice of placing prisoner informants, or “snitches,” in cells with individuals already charged with serious crimes, hoping to elicit an unguarded confession.That violated theirconstitutional right to have an attorney present while being questioned.

Orange County public defender Scott Sanders uncovered this clearly unconstitutional practice as he reviewed discovery records given to him in the case of Scott Dekraai, who eventually pleaded guilty to the 2011 Seal Beach salon murders, which showed sheriff’s officials had purposely placed a well-known snitch close to Dekraai while he was in custody. A California Superior court judge later said that two deputies “intentionally lied or willfully withheld material evidence” during his murder trial. 

Dekraai faced the death penalty over the worst mass killing in Orange County history, eight people murdered at a hair salon. He was expected to receive the death penalty, but Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals ruled he could not receive a fair trial as the Sheriff’s Department’s had failed to turn over evidence about the scandal.

In 2017, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. (Capital punishment is legal in California, but Governor Gavin Newsom declared an official moratorium on further executions in March 2019.)

Among other defendants who received retrial due to the scandal was a man who killed a woman who was eight months pregnant and dumped her body into Long Beach harbor.

Sanders was clearly dissatisfied with the apparent lack of interest by Harris’ office and by her successor, Xavier Becerra, in pursuing those Orange County sheriff’s deputies who perjured themselves but escaped criminal consequences for their misdeeds.

The end of the investigation in 2016 was not publicized until three years later, and Sanders implied that this was done to avoid embarrassment to Harris and her successor.

“It’s been pretty hard to sit here watching them pretend like they had an ongoing investigation when they were done in 2016,” he said. “All of them knew. It’s not like Sen. Harris didn’t know. It’s not like Becerra didn’t know they were perpetuating a scam. There was no reason not to tell us the investigation was over, but they clearly did not want to deal with questions about why they did and didn’t do certain things.”

Sanders, who was in a position to speak with authority regarding the investigation, was clearly unimpressed by the efforts of the Harris-led attorney general’s office: “It was just striking ... it was really, clearly, not a hard and penetrating investigation determined to get to the truth about what happened. You couldn’t read this and say these folks were really trying to get to the bottom of this. It was softballs and little follow-up,” he said.

“You would have never examined these materials and decided the A.G.’s office was trying to put any sheriff’s deputies in harm’s way.”

Sanders went on to specifically criticize Harris for a lack of resolve to get convictions for obvious criminal misconduct: “Three deputies committed blatant perjury in a death penalty case. The Harris administration had everything it needed to prosecute for perjury, except for the courage to stand up to law enforcement.”

Although Harris’ spokespeople said they were also frustrated by the investigation’s lack of success, Sanders was not convinced, and said that the inept investigation did nothing to end widespread police misconduct in Orange County.

“When you do an investigation like this and it’s not done in good faith and it’s not responsibly done, members of law enforcement just become more dangerous in terms of their willingness to commit misconduct,” he said. “The last line of protection for the public was the attorney general’s office.” 



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