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UCI Law School Dean Chemerinsky Joins Local Legal Community in Demanding Federal Investigation of OC Jails

UC Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and more than 30 Orange County prosecutors, professors and prominent members of the legal community signed a letter on Nov. 17 asking the Department of Justice to investigate the OC District Attorney’s office (OCDA) and the OC Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) for their use of jailhouse informants and concealment of informant-related evidence.

In Orange County, evidence of almost 30 years of actively eliciting statements from charged defendants was found, including threatening defendants with violence and death, according to the letter. In Court testimony, however, prosecutors presented the defendant’s confessions as if they were simply overheard.

The letter describes that the use of testimony acquired from secret jailhouse informants not only violates the constitutional protections afforded to criminal defendants, but also could potentially make the “difference between acquittal and conviction, freedom and incarceration, or perhaps even life and death.”

Per California penal code, informants are only permitted to passively listen to statements of defendants, but are not allowed to actively investigate. Moreover, the use of informants must be made evident to both defendants and judges.

Additionally, the Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland established the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence, or evidence that may be favorable to the defendant in trial.

Earlier this year, the defense in the high-profile murder case People v. Dekraai, found evidence of a secret computer database held by OCSD since 1990 called “TRED.” TRED files contain detailed information about inmate movements, and suggested the use of a jailhouse informant program for many years.

In reexamination of the Dekraai case after the discovery of the TRED system, the Orange County Superior Court found that the prison inmate who obtained Dekraai’s confessions, Fernando Perez, was actually an informant for the DA’s office and was moved from cell to cell to obtain confessions from various prisoners.

This is not only in violation of the law, per the letter, but is contrary to claims by the OCSD, who denied “the very existence of a jailhouse informant program in Orange County” at the start of the proceedings.  

The letter also discussed a second high-profile murder case, People v. Wozniak, which illustrates OCDA’s concealment of informants from defendants by non-disclosure of evidence in the Orange County Informant Index, a countywide database of informant files.

According to a press release by the OCDA on Nov. 19 in response to the letter, OCDA argued that the undersigned did not attend any of the court proceedings in the People v. Wozniak case, but rather used unreliable media accounts.

Moreover, the press release stated that “Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy, who is prosecuting the Wozniak case, has personally made himself available to Professor Chemerinsky.” However, Professor Chemerinsky “never ordered the transcripts of the court’s proceedings.”

The press release also stated that the OCDA will improve the use of informants in Orange County.

Ultimately, the letter calls for a thorough investigation by the Department of Justice as it is an entity independent of the OCSD and the OCDA.

“It is our firm belief that the Department of Justice is the only entity equipped to conduct this investigation and restore public confidence in the criminal justice system in Orange County,” concluded the letter.