(CN) — Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer touted reforms he’s implemented while in office as families of victims of the area’s worst mass shooting called for his resignation and after a California appeals court revived a lawsuit seeking to end the controversial jailhouse informant program Spitzer oversees.
Southern California’s Fourth Appellate District on Wednesday reversed an earlier dismissal of a lawsuit by Orange County residents who claim a jailhouse informant program operated by the DA and county sheriff’s department has eroded their faith in the criminal legal system’s ability to deliver justice.
Residents want a judge to end a program that coerces confessions and other information from incarcerated people by way of threats and violence from informants who are collaborating with the DA and sheriff.
The information, some of it containing exonerating details, was hidden from defense attorneys later presented by prosecutors as fact during at least 140 criminal proceedings in Orange County Superior Court, the lawsuit said.
The scandal resulted in new trials or new sentences in several high-profile cases and derailed the county’s prosecution of the area’s deadliest mass murderer — Scott Dekraai, who massacred eight people at a hair salon in Seal Beach, California, in 2011.
Associate Justice Raymond Ikola wrote in the court’s opinion that residents have standing to pursue their claims because the informant program represents a “flagrant disregard of the government’s constitutional duties and limitations.”
Ikola also rejected the county’s claims that the case would impede any pending criminal prosecutions and interfere with law enforcement duties, writing in the opinion that the complaint cannot request any orders in active criminal cases.
Kimberly Edds, a spokesperson for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, said in an emailed statement to Courthouse News on Wednesday the agency is reviewing the ruling with county counsel and will determine its next steps at a later time.
Somil Trivedi, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the Orange County residents in the case, said in an interview Thursday plaintiffs were pleased the court rejected the county’s arguments.
“The court found essentially that they were not above the law,” Trivedi told Courthouse News. “We feel vindicated. The ruling is a total victory.”
Edds also said in the statement Spitzer has implemented a host of reforms when he took office, including on the jailhouse informant program.
“He adopted a new jailhouse informant manual that strictly governs the use of jailhouse informants, including the provision that a jailhouse informant cannot be used without the express consent of the District Attorney,” the statement said.
But Trivedi said the reforms are not enough to convince county residents that they should trust Spitzer to ensure the program is operating legally, or even that the program should continue to exist.
“I don’t think we should feel comforted that he’s citing reforms whereby he’s the final arbiter of whether his office is using informants legally,” Trivedi said. “In a broader context, Orange County law enforcement does not deserve the benefit of the doubt.”
Trivedi noted that on top of the jailhouse snitch scandal, residents’ faith in law enforcement corroded further after Spitzer chided Sheriff Don Barnes last year for his failure to inform him about evidence-booking misconduct by officers.
In November 2019, county officials announced that a probe of the sheriff’s department found more than a dozen officers failed to book evidence according to policy, and in some cases failed to book evidence when they claimed to do so, a practice Spitzer said jeopardized criminal cases on his docket.
“These are further reasons why we need accountability from this case and from a judge rather than trust that [Orange County officials] will implement reforms,” Trivedi said.
Spitzer’s office said in July it found prosecutors under the previous administration acted unlawfully in their prosecution of the Dekraai case. Afterward, Spitzer announced he would stamp out prosecutorial misconduct under new reforms, including the establishment of a committee to review the ethics of major case prosecutions.
Spitzer’s audit of the Dekraai prosecution found that the use of jailhouse informants was unnecessary and detrimental to the case, but also that the program did not impact other criminal cases.
Families of Dekraai’s victims were unhappy with Spitzer’s audit of the prosecution and were further inflamed when a video surfaced of Spitzer speaking at a 2019 retirement party for lead Dekraai prosecutors Scott Simmons and Dan Wagner.
In the video, first reported by Voice of OC, Spitzer tells Wagner and Simmons they were “unfairly blamed” for the fallout of the jailhouse informant scandal.
Spitzer also called the two former prosecutors “honorable men” who deeply value “the ethics of our profession.”
In a protest Wednesday outside the DA’s office, families of the Seal Beach shooting victims — including Bethany Webb, sister of victim Laura and also a plaintiff in the jailhouse informant lawsuit — called for Spitzer’s resignation and blasted his behavior in the video.
Paul Wilson, whose wife Christy was killed in the Seal Beach shooting, said in a press release Spitzer should resign for promising to root out prosecutorial misconduct only to later praise the two men at the center of his office’s largest scandal to date.
“Shame on Todd Spitzer for turning a tragedy into a political opportunity,” the statement said.
In a statement on the protest, Spitzer said he understands families’ frustration with the criminal legal system.
“But that frustration has morphed into an unrelenting scorched earth campaign against the OCDA’s Office and demands to fire people who have already left the office or were never involved in the prosecution,” he said.
Spitzer also chided Wilson for collaborating with Scott Sanders — the public defense attorney who represented Dekraai and helped uncover the county’s confidential informant program — adding that Sanders is motivated by political ambition.
“It is a travesty that Mr. Wilson, who has suffered unimaginable loss at the hands of a criminal, is now campaigning on behalf of an assistant public defender who wants nothing more than to run for District Attorney so that he can throw the jail doors open and release criminals back into the streets without being held accountable,” Spitzer said in the statement.
Sanders said in an interview Friday that Spitzer is engaging in dog-whistling and that residents deserve to know where the DA truly stands on the problem of prosecutorial misconduct.
“It’s a shocking response by a sitting district attorney,” Sanders’ said of Spitzer’s reaction to the protest. “He betrayed Paul Wilson rather than candidly answer by telling the truth and saying he didn’t keep his campaign promises.”
Sanders said his collaboration with families of victims of the 2011 mass shooting is spurred by a shared desire to rid the county of misconduct.
“We have a shared interest and shared commitment to holding those responsible for government misconduct responsible,” Sanders said.
Contrary to Spitzer’s suggestion, Sanders said he has no current plans to run for office, but he will ask the DA to publicly explain why he announced a non-existent candidacy.
“I have no plans, but I’m counting nothing out,” Sanders said. “Those allegations are not based on anything and we’ll see what he has to say.”
After Spitzer released his statement on the protest, Wilson said on Twitter he couldn’t understand why the DA had attacked his character.
“How dare OCDA/TODD SPITZER attack my character,” Wilson tweeted. “I have fought for Christy Wilson since day 1 and will not allow that PARASITE to tarnish my work exposing the corruption in that office.”