SANTA ANA, Calif. — A grand jury on Tuesday said there’s no evidence of a jailhouse informant program in a Southern California county reeling from a scandal over the use of snitches that has upended several high-profile murder cases and prompted a federal investigation.
The report in Orange County — which has one of the country’s 10 biggest jail systems with 6,200 inmates — was blasted by critics who say authorities have used informants to secretly elicit information from detained suspects, not a formal program with a manual and scheduled events.
The grand jury’s report comes as a judge holds hearings over whether authorities in the county of 3 million people withheld evidence about the use of informants in the case of a mass killer whose trial has since been placed on hold because of the scandal.
After an 11-month civil investigation, the panel found a few rogue deputies on jail duty went beyond the scope of their assignments to investigate crimes and that inadequate supervision in the district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department has eroded the public trust.
But the grand jury found no evidence of a conspiracy, titling its report “The Myth of the Orange County Jailhouse Informant Program.”
The sheriff’s department “does not have a stable of informants that routinely disperse throughout the jail to gather evidence on crimes either legally or illegally,” Carrie Carmody, the grand jury foreperson, said in a statement.
Authorities can receive information from inmates — and often do in the jails, as “information is currency,” according to the report. But they aren’t allowed to use informants to deliberately elicit information from defendants once they have lawyers.
The panel began investigating after an Orange County judge in 2015 yanked the district attorney’s office from the case of salon shooter Scott Dekraai after finding sheriff’s deputies lied or withheld evidence related to informants — one who chatted up Dekraai while conversations were being recorded in his jail cell.
Dekraai pleaded guilty in 2014 to killing his hairstylist ex-wife and seven others in a 2011 shooting rampage. But he has yet to be sentenced, and his attorney is asking he be spared the death penalty over the informant issue.
Since then, the scandal has grown. Four murder cases have been affected, said Michelle Van Der Linden, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office. State officials and the U.S. Department of Justice are also investigating.
Last year, a state appellate court wrote that there were real and systemic abuses by prosecutors and law enforcement.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who represents Dekraai, said the grand jury failed to address the evidence brought to light during months of court hearings.
“They’re going, ‘Hey, we can’t find a policy manual about our jailhouse informant program.’ Of course you couldn’t — you’re hiding all the evidence from it,” Sanders said.
Carmody acknowledged there were some violations of evidence-discovery rules where authorities failed to turn over required evidence.
But the report, which recommends agencies improve record-keeping and training, concludes that county authorities have made changes to remedy the problems and called the ongoing court hearings a “witch-hunt for agency corruption.”
The district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department welcomed the grand jury’s review, which is civil, not criminal, in nature.
“The report validates many past statements made by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens regarding the use of jailhouse informants and confirms a departmentally sanctioned program does not exist,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement.