O.C. prosecutors committed malpractice in mass killer case, review finds
By JAMES QUEALLYSTAFF WRITER JULY 20, 20201:04 PM
The Orange County district attorney’s office said two of its former prosecutors committed malpractice by willfully ignoring the use of a veteran government informant to obtain a confession from mass killer Scott Dekraai, according to an internal review that was made public Monday of the county’s so-called snitch scandal.
The 57-page report concludes that the two men tasked with prosecuting Dekraai — the admitted gunman who claimed eight lives in the 2011 Seal Beach salon massacre — made a “deliberate choice not to find out the criminal and informant history” of Fernando Perez, who was housed next to Dekraai when he confessed to the shootings days after his arrest.
Dekraai’s trial was key to revealing that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department had made a practice of placing seasoned informants near high-profile defendants while in the county’s jails, ultimately allowing them to question inmates about crimes for which they were awaiting trial without a lawyer present, a violation of their constitutional rights.
The scandal has led to retrials and reduced sentences in several Orange County homicides in recent years, but the blame for the misconduct had largely been focused on the Sheriff’s Department and former Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas.ADVERTISEMENT
The report released Monday focused largely on the actions of former Asst. Dist. Atty. Dan Wagner and Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Simmons, who oversaw Dekraai’s prosecution. Both men resigned late last year. The report did not mention them by name, citing confidentiality laws, but described both of their job titles in relation to the case.
“These apparent acts of deliberate negligence have had devastating consequences to the victim’s families, the Orange County criminal justice system and its law enforcement agencies,” the report read.
The report’s main conclusion was that the two prosecutors ignored voluminous evidence that Perez was a longtime jailhouse snitch for various law enforcement agencies, a fact that wasn’t disclosed to Dekraai’s defense counsel until years after his arrest.
Less than a week after Dekraai was jailed, a sheriff’s deputy told a district attorney’s office investigator assigned to the case that Perez had “provided good intel in the past” and wanted to offer information in connection with the Seal Beach massacre. Less than two months earlier, prosecutors were also given a presentation about a federal takedown of Mexican Mafia members that would have included details about Perez’s status as an informant, according to the report.ADVERTISEMENT
The district attorney’s office also kept an “Informant Index” that noted Perez had cooperated with law enforcement as far back as 1999, yet neither of the lead prosecutors checked the index after he became part of the Dekraai case, the report found.
“During the first six months of the Dekraai case … the prosecution team repeatedly ignored clear and compelling evidence that Perez was a veteran federal confidential informant,” the report read.
Attempts to contact Wagner and Simmons for comment were not immediately successful.
While the report suggested “severe disciplinary” action against the prosecutors, their decision to resign late last year largely insulated them from consequences, continuing a pattern of barely anyone facing punishment in one of the county’s largest law enforcement scandals.ADVERTISEMENT
Earlier this year, a Times investigation revealed the California attorney general’s office investigation into deputies at the center of the snitch scandal was woefully lacking. In the nearly four-year review, only four members of the Sheriff’s Department were interviewed. The deputies who were the target of the state’s investigation were not among them, The Times found, and no attempts were made to subpoena or compel testimony during the first two years of the probe, when it was run by Kamala Harris, now a U.S. senator.
The deputies never faced criminal charges, and all three have since resigned. The U.S. Department of Justice is still conducting a review of the district attorney’s office, but there is no timeline for when that might conclude, according to a spokeswoman for the D.A.’s office.
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James Queally writes about crime and policing in Southern California for the Los Angeles Times.
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