- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) - The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday opened an investigation into a long-running scandal over the use of jailhouse informants in Orange County, California, federal authorities said.

The civil pattern-or-practice investigation will look into allegations that county prosecutors and sheriff’s officials used jailhouse snitches to get information from defendants in violation of their constitutional rights, the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles said in a statement.

The probe will also examine allegations that prosecutors in the Southern California county failed to turn over required evidence to defense attorneys.

“A systematic failure to protect the right to counsel and to a fair trial makes criminal proceedings fundamentally unfair and diminishes the public’s faith in the integrity of the justice system,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who heads the civil rights division, said in the statement.

“Our investigation will examine the facts and evidence to determine whether the District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department engaged in a pattern or practice of violating these rights,” Gupta said.

The statement said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas requested the review.

The District Attorney’s Office, in a statement, said it was pleased to cooperate with the Justice Department and believes that investigators will conclude it “did not engage in systematic or intentional violation of civil rights of any inmate and no innocent person was wrongfully convicted.”

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said in a statement that she would cooperate fully with the investigation.

The scandal began several years ago after the defense lawyer for mass killer Scott Dekraai learned that a jailhouse informant had been chatting with his client even though he already had a lawyer, and alleged a violation of his client’s constitutional rights.

The discovery prompted the judge to open hearings into the issue and eventually yank county prosecutors from the case, finding sheriff’s deputies lied or intentionally withheld information about the use of snitches- a decision that was upheld by a state appeals court last month.

Earlier this year, Orange County authorities acknowledged an extensive log detailing how informants were handled was kept by deputies in charge of the jails but never released despite the earlier hearings.

“It is hoped that the Justice Department’s probe will help reform the system so that all Orange County residents will receive the constitutional protections to which they are entitled,” said Scott Sanders, the assistant public defender representing Dekraai who brought the allegations.

Since the scandal began, other criminal cases have also been affected. In one instance, a gang member took a plea deal - and a much shorter prison sentence - for the 2004 killing of a rival when an earlier conviction was set aside over concerns prosecutors failed to share critical evidence.

Dekraai’s case has been affected, too. While he pleaded guilty to killing eight people in a 2011 shooting rampage at a Seal Beach hair salon, he has not been sentenced.

Rackauckas was seeking the death penalty for Dekraai. But the case has been turned over to the state Attorney General’s office, which is also investigating the county’s use of informants.

The federal probe was requested more than a year ago by a group of leading legal scholars and experts. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of University of California, Irvine’s law school, said he was pleased U.S. authorities would take up the issue.

“It is essential to learn the extent of the constitutional violations and also ensure an adequate remedy,” he said.

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