Orange County California DAs’ Office disqualified from seeking death penalty against Seal Beach murderer

June 1, 2015

Since the 1980s, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office (OCDA) in California and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) apparently have been routinely violating the constitutional rights of incarcerated defendants awaiting trial to remain silent (Fifth Amendment), to counsel (Sixth Amendment) and to due process of law (Fourteenth Amendment) by placing jailhouse informants in adjoining cells with instructions to elicit confessions from them in return for extra privileges, reduced sentences and cash payments. When they testified about the confessions, the jailhouse informants denied requesting or receiving any benefits in exchange for their testimony and the OCDA and OCSD concealed the existence of the agreements. The polite description of this arrangement is subornation of perjury.

Dahlia Lithwick reports for Slate,

Prosecutorial and police misconduct are often dismissed as just a few bad apples doing a few bad apple-ish things. But what happens when it’s entrenched and systemic and goes unchecked for years? That looks to be the case in Orange County, California, where the situation got so completely out of hand this spring that Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals issued an order disqualifying the entire Orange County District Attorney’s Office (that’s all 250 prosecutors) from continuing to prosecute a major death penalty case.

The death penalty case is People v. Scott Dekraai, who is in custody awaiting a penalty phase hearing after pleading guilty last year to killing his ex-wife and seven others at a beauty parlor in Seal Beach in 2011. Dekraai’s attorney is Santa Ana assistant public defender Scott Sanders, who realized that a jailhouse informant who had produced damning evidence about Dekraai had done the same thing to another client he was representing. Sanders smelled a rat, so he commenced an investigation that resulted in the discovery of “60,000 pages of records indicating that the county sheriff’s office routinely used and coordinated with those informants to get around the constitutional prohibition on eliciting incriminating statements from defendants who had lawyered up and should not have been interrogated.”

Sanders also found out “that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has maintained a massive, secret, 25-year-old computerized record-keeping system called TRED. These TRED documents were full of potentially exculpatory data, but the agency officials had systematically refused to turn any of them over, or even acknowledge their very existence, to defense counsel.”

Judge Goethals refused to dismiss Sanders’s motion to dismiss the death penalty but he granted the motion to disqualify the OCDA and its 250 prosecutors. Kamala Harris, the Attorney General for the State of California, is appealing his order.

The alleged misconduct, if true, is not only an egregious violation of three constitutional rights, it’s a 25-year practice of concealing what they were doing. The rules are clear. After a suspect/defendant is represented by counsel, the prosecution and the police are prohibited from contacting him without permission from the attorney. They are also prohibited from attempting to get around the rule by using inmates to obtain confessions from defendants represented by counsel. In that situation, the inmate becomes an agent of law enforcement acting under their direction and control. A violation of this rule is a violation of a defendant’s right to remain silent and his right to have counsel present during an interrogation. The remedy for violating this rule is exclusion of the confession.

This rule does not prohibit inmates from acting on their own, which often happens when an inmate seeks to lighten his load by obtaining a confession from the defendant. If successful, he will contact law enforcement or the prosecutor assigned to the case and play, ‘Let’s Make a Deal.’

Unfortunately, if he is unsuccessful, he may invent a confession containing inside information about the offense. There are ways to obtain that information, for example, by contacting a clerk or paralegal in the prosecutor’s office and misrepresenting himself to be a reporter or a lawyer calling about the case. The OCDA and the OCSD apparently decided to make it easy by streamlining the process and lying about it afterward. Rewards, including promises to reward informants in the future are considered exculpatory evidence that must be disclosed to defense counsel. Failure to do so is a violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Why did they do that? To get the conviction, of course.

Easy to do when you believe everyone is guilty and constitutional rights are mere impediments to convicting the guilty.

Orange County now has an enormous mess to clean up and God only knows how many innocent people have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to prison behind this institutional misconduct. Perhaps they will find out an innocent person was executed.

I have said many times that criminal defense attorneys are liberty’s last champions. If they do their job, as Scott Sanders did in this case, they force everyone else to follow the rules. Unfortunately, it took 25 years for that to happen in Orange County.

Susan Mellen is free today after spending 17 years in prison for a murder she did not commit

October 11, 2014

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Good morning:

Free at last!

After serving 17 years in prison for a crime that she did not commit, Susan Mellen is free at last.

Corrina Knoll of the Los Angeles Times reports:

Superior Court Judge Mark S. Arnold said the trial had hinged on a single witness who was a “habitual liar” and claimed Mellen had confessed involvement in the crime. But jurors never learned that the witness’ sister, a Torrance police officer, believed she was a pathological liar or that Torrance police had several years earlier deemed the witness an “unreliable informant.”

The judge said Mellen had received “subpar representation” from a trial attorney who should have conducted a thorough investigation of the witness’ credibility.

“I believe that not only is Ms. Mellen not guilty, I believe based on what I’ve read, she’s innocent, and for that reason I believe the criminal justice system failed,” Arnold said.

“Thank you, your honor, thank you so much,” Mellen, 59, said in a small voice.

“Good luck,” the judge replied.

Mellen was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1998 for soliciting the murder of a homeless man, Richard Daly, at a home in Lawndale, California where she and others were living at the time. Three gang members were subsequently linked to the murder and one of them was convicted of beating Daly to death. One of the others later passed a polygraph in which he admitted that he was present during the murder, but Susan Mellen was not there.

The three causes of this wrongful conviction are:

1) Jailhouse informant perjury;

2) Police and prosecutorial misconduct; and

3) Ineffective assistance of counsel.

The jailhouse informant or ‘snitch’ in this case was a woman named June Patti. People who work in the criminal justice system all know that jailhouse snitch testimony is inherently unreliable because they have powerful motives to lie in order to receive beneficial consequences lightening their load in return for their cooperation and testimony against a defendant. For this reason, I believe no conviction based solely on jailhouse snitch testimony should ever stand.

Mellen’s case is a perfect example of what can go wrong, if jailhouse snitch testimony is admitted to shore up a weak prosecution case.

June Patti testified that Susan Mellen admitted her guilt in the Daly murder while they were together in jail before Mellen’s trial. The lead investigator, LAPD Detective Marcella Winn, and the prosecutor who tried Susan Mellen should have known and likely knew that June Patti was an unreliable witness because she had a long history of providing false tips to law enforcement. For example, Patti’s sister, the Torrance police officer to whom Judge Arnold referred in his comment, now claims that she warned Detective Winn that June Patti was a pathological liar and several years before the murder a narcotics detective for the Torrance Police Department wrote a report in which he said Patti had provided a series of tips that turned out to false.

Police and prosecutors have a duty to investigate the reliability of an informant before putting her on the stand and risk convicting a potentially innocent defendant.

This information was exculpatory evidence that should have been obtained and disclosed to defense counsel before trial pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, and Giglio v. United States. Their failure to obtain and disclose this information to defense counsel was misconduct.

Finally, Mellen’s defense attorney compounded their misconduct by failing to investigate June Patti’s credibility. Her failure constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel.

I have often referred to defense counsel as liberty’s last guardian and that statement is certainly true in this case because Susan Mellen is free today due to the efforts of Deirdre O’Connor, an attorney who runs Innocence Matters, a nonprofit organization that represents wrongfully convicted innocent people.

Upon her release yesterday after serving 17 years in prison for a crime that she did not commit, she said,

I always forgave my enemies. Even your haters, you have to forgive them and sometimes thank them because they bring you closer to God.

For more information about June Patti’s pathological lying in Washington State after she left California, please go here.

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