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Scathing report faults Orange County DA Office for 'failure of leadership'

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The crisis in Orange County's criminal justice system took a dramatic new turn Monday as District Attorney Tony Rackauckas called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate his own office. (KABC)

The crisis in Orange County's criminal justice system took a dramatic new turn Monday as District Attorney Tony Rackauckas called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate his own office.

"I am respectfully requesting and welcoming your office to conduct any review you deem appropriate in regard to the OCDA Informant Policies and Practices," wrote Rackauckas in the letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

The announcement came hours after the release of a scathing report by a committee Rackauckas convened in July to examine the mounting controversy tied to the alleged misuse of jailhouse informants.

The report compares the Orange County District Attorney's Office to a "ship without a rudder," and said some of its prosecutors have adopted a "win at all costs mentality."

MORE: Jailhouse informant scandal rocking criminal justice system in Orange County

"In short, the office suffers from what is best described as a failure of leadership," reads the report by the Informant Policies and Practices Evaluation Committee.

Critics say the OCDA and local law enforcement have engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to elicit illegal jailhouse confessions and hide evidence. Rackauckas has acknowledged mistakes were made, but insists there has been no criminal wrongdoing.

"There's no criminal conspiracy in this office," Rackauckas told reporters Monday afternoon, while surrounded by members of his staff. "No false confessions, no innocent people convicted."

But the controversy surrounding the use of informants has unraveled multiple felony cases and set at least one admitted killer free. Another convicted killer, Eric Ortiz, was granted a new trial in November after four Orange County Sheriff's "Special Handling" Deputies pleaded the fifth on the witness stand when they were called to testify about the jail's use of informants.

MORE: Did Orange County law enforcement break law by using jailhouse informants?

The five-attorney committee, referred to as IPPEC, noted "numerous deficiencies in both the supervision and training at the OCDA which contributed to the jailhouse informant issues."

Members of the committee were mostly hand-selected by Tony Rackauckas and include Jim Smith, a retired Orange County Superior Court judge; Patrick Dixon, a retired Los Angeles County assistant district attorney; Robert Gerard, former Orange County Bar Association president and Blithe Leece, an attorney who specializes in legal ethics. Loyola Law School professor and ethics expert Laurie Levenson served as an adviser.

In their report, committee members joined a chorus of legal voices calling for an independent agency, such as the U.S. Department of Justice or an Orange County Grand Jury, to investigate the jailhouse informant controversy.

IPPEC notes that while its members conducted dozens of interviews and reviewed thousands of pages of legal briefs, its members did not have subpoena power, could not compel interviews and individuals were not questioned under oath.

Miriam Krinsky is among the more than thirty former prosecutors, retired judges, law school professors and other legal heavyweights who signed a letter in November asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Orange County's use of jailhouse informants.

"We know from this report that there were systemic and leadership failures in the DA's office and we now know that for a period of years there have been some concerns about jailhouse informant practices and disclosure of exculpatory information," Krinsky said.

"And it's time now for others who can bring in a neutral eye and have investigative authority to come in and look at the system and restore public confidence in what's going on in Orange County's justice system," she added.

IPPEC members note in their report that, "While undoubtedly most prosecutors in the OCDA's Office are ethical and hard working professionals, there are significant issues within the office in the areas of training supervision, and overall culture."

"A prosecutor's job is to do justice, not to win at all costs," said Krinsky. "That type of win at all costs philosophy is the antithesis of what prosecutors and members of the justice system need to stand for."

IPPEC came up came up with ten specific recommendations:

  • Revise OCDA policies and procedures regarding the use of jailhouse informants.

  • Establish a Confidential Informant Review Committee (CIRC) with defined protocols and include an "outside" or independent member on the CIRC.

  • Overhaul the OCDA training program, with extensive additional training regarding discovery obligations and the use of jailhouse informants.

  • Coordinate with the OCSD and all law enforcement agencies in Orange County regarding jailhouse informant protocols and procedures, including OCDA's Jailhouse Informant Policy, and engage in detailed training on the Orange County Informant Index (OCII).

  • Restructure and combine into one unit the OCDA Gang Unit and Target Unit.

  • Establish and OCDA Conviction Integrity Unit.

  • Establish an OCDA Chief Ethics Officer position.

  • Eliminate "Chief of Staff" position and create a position of "Assistant District Attorney for Media Relations."

  • Appoint an independent "monitor" for a three-year period to oversee OCDA compliance with the IPPEC's recommendation.

  • Rackauckas said his office is already in the process of implementing most of the recommendations.
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