Orange County sheriff set to take the stand in jailhouse informant case

For three years, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders has pursued a goal that seemed implausible: the chance to question Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens under oath about the use of snitches in her jails.

Now, in the fifth week of the third round of hearings meant to probe informant-related evidence in the case of Orange County’s worst mass shooting, Sanders will get his chance.

Hutchens is scheduled to testify Wednesday morning before Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals. The judge has expressed repeated frustration with the Sheriff’s Department’s failure to turn over evidence.

The judge has criticized Hutchens for taking “inconsistent positions” on the withholding of evidence, and at times has threatened to hold her in contempt.

The case stems from the prosecution of Scott Dekraai, a former tugboat captain who pleaded guilty to the murders of eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011. To bolster its chances of sending Dekraai to death row, the prosecution originally sought to use evidence against him obtained by a veteran jailhouse informant.

The penalty phase of Dekraai’s trial — in which he will get the death penalty or life in prison — has been delayed indefinitely as the hearings drag on.

Sanders, who represents Dekraai, argues the Sheriff’s Department has proved itself untrustworthy, and that the death penalty should be thrown out.

The Sheriff’s Department has delivered bewildering and contradictory responses to questions about operations in which jailhouse snitches elicited incriminating statements from targeted inmates.

The department denies the existence of any such operation, a claim undermined by memos and internal documents introduced in court.

The California attorney general’s office, which is prosecuting the Dekraai case after Goethals tossed the entire Orange County district attorney’s office off the case, continues to pursue the death penalty.

So far, despite weeks of testimony in the current hearing, no one seems able to answer one of Sanders’ key questions — what accounts for a gap between April and October 2011 in the so-called Special Handling log?

Called to testify, some sheriff’s jailers have invoked their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Some former supervisors in the jail’s Special Handling unit, which handled informers, have blamed lower-level jailers for any misuse of snitches — a narrative echoed in a heavily criticized recent report from the Orange County grand jury, which blames “rogue deputies.”

Last week, Hutchens, who has been sheriff since 2008, announced she will not run for reelection next year. Both the Department of Justice and the California attorney general’s office are probing her department’s handling of informants.

Twitter: @LATchrisgoffard

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