California Prosecutors Barred from Death Penalty Case for Misconduct


A California judge disqualified Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and his entire office from prosecuting a death penalty case after finding that prosecutors and police had engaged in misconduct.

Evidence in the case of Scott Dekraii showed that, after Mr. Dekraii had asked for a lawyer, Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies deliberately placed him near a repeat jailhouse informant who had been instructed to elicit a confession from him.

This practice is illegal because the Constitution bars police from attempting to obtain a confession from a defendant after he has invoked his right to counsel. Jailhouse informants can be used only when defendants voluntarily make statements to cellmates, not when they are orchestrated and recorded by jailhouse officials, which makes the interaction effectively a police interrogation by proxy.

Further investigation revealed that this illegal use of informants has been standard practice in Orange County for decades — so standard it has been meticulously tracked in a massive database called TRED. The sheriff’s department and prosecutors have gone to great lengths, including testifying falsely in court, to keep TRED’s very existence a secret. As the judge wrote in his order: “[A] wealth of potentially relevant discovery material–an entire computerized data base built and maintained by the Orange County Sheriff over the course of many years which is a repository for information related directly to the very issues that this court was examining as a result of the defendant’s motion–remained secret, despite numerous specific discovery orders issued by this court…”

The absence of direct evidence that the district attorney actively participated in the concealment of this information from the defense and the court “aggravated” the situation, the court found, because the DA allowed his agents to “habitually ignore[] the law over an extended period of time.” The DA neglected his responsibility for ensuring that criminal investigations and prosecutions do not rely on “peace officers who may try to cut legal corners” and he ignored attempts to compromise suspects’ rights out of “loyalty to his law enforcement partners.”

Because the evidence demonstrates that the district attorney “cannot or will not insure compliance by other team members with the orders of this court,” the judge recused all 250 prosecutors in Rackauckas’s office and transferred the case to California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who has appealed the ruling. Her announcement that her office will investigate the allegations drew criticism from observers who noted the close ties between the DA and AG’s offices.

According to OC Weekly, prosecutors have engaged in misconduct involving the illegal use of jailhouse informants, hiding exculpatory evidence, and committing perjury to cover up the tactics in at least 36 recent or ongoing cases, including five death-penalty trials. Legal observers note that while the scale of the cover-up by law enforcement and prosecutors sets Orange County apart, police and prosecutorial misconduct is a common feature of the American criminal justice system.