Public Defenders Make Justice Happen
It almost sounds like the stuff of blockbusters. In Orange County, CA, in geographic proximity to the stages of Hollywood but another world altogether, 23 months of painstaking research and analysis has found an enduring moment in the limelight. Public defender Scott Sanders, with the support of the Orange County Public Defender Office and many partners, has exposed at least 25 years of corruption, collusion, breach of duty, and ethical violations by prosecutors and sheriff employees.
Over the past sixteen months, revelations of pervasive, unconstitutional conduct orchestrated by prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies relating to the placement of snitches near high-profile defendants, the persistent failure to turn over exculpatory evidence as required by Brady, and the concealment over the past quarter century of all notes created by jail deputies maintained in a specially created computer file system, culminated in a judge ruling that the Orange County DA’s office (all 250 prosecutors) could not fairly prosecute the case against defendant Scott Dekraai. It is unfathomable to consider how many thousands of defendants have lost their opportunity for justice and safe to say that public confidence in the criminal justice system there has been dealt a serious blow, if not gutted altogether.
The development of the evidence of the Orange County scandal demonstrates the vital importance of public defender offices to the criminal justice system. What began as an inquiry in the representation of a single client illuminated a possible trend, which was then confirmed as a systematic pattern of coercion and deception. Public defender offices are in a uniquely advantageous position to see such patterns of conduct. Additionally, they have the ability to harness the work of multiple staff members to investigate and research continuing courses of illegal or unethical behavior on the part of law enforcement. In Orange County, it was the recognition of one small unsettling detail in one client’s case repeated in another client’s case that led to a broader investigation of the use of informants. Even now, after 16 months of research and enough damaging evidence for at least one judge to remove the entire district attorney’s office from the prosecution of the original case, the scope of inquiry is likely still not wide enough.
Public defenders, created to ensure that America is a country that promises and delivers justice to all people, not just the few wealthy, now represent upwards of 90|PERCENT| of all criminal defendants. Further, in our adversarial system of criminal justice, public defenders play an essential role in the checks and balances that ensure the administration of justice. Without the public defender’s office in Orange County, decades of misconduct might never have been exposed. By representing their individual clients, public defenders improve the system for everyone.
Strong and independent public defender offices are crucial to having and maintaining a fair and honest criminal justice system. The combination of dedicated defenders with deep institutional knowledge of the local legal environment and the ability to conduct investigations into potential law enforcement malfeasance without political ramifications gives public defender’s offices advantages not possessed by other entities such as the private bar, academic institutions, the media or governmental watchdog agencies. In short, it is not by mere happenstance that it was the public defender’s office, rather than any other entity, that uncovered the informant scandal in Orange County. Time will prove that this work benefits many other justice systems throughout the nation. We applaud the public defenders who brought it to light and will no doubt continue to fight for fairness and justice for their community.
In late November, NAPD proudly joined a number of justice advocates asking for federal investigation into the Orange County District Attorneys' Office and Orange County Sheriff's Office practices relating to their use of jailhouse informants.
You can read the letter requesting federal investigation HERE
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