Scott Dekraai

Scott Dekraai, left, is accused of killing eight people in a Seal Beach beauty salon. His attorneys have challenged the use of evidence collected by jailhouse informants, a move that could affect other high-profile cases. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / March 18, 2014)

A legal fight over the use of jailhouse informants has thrown the emotionally charged trial of the man accused of committing the deadliest shooting in Orange County history into jeopardy and will probably have repercussions in other high-profile cases.

The battle has shifted the spotlight from the case against Seal Beach shooting suspect Scott Dekraai to prosecutors and informants, who have testified for weeks in hearings over allegations by the defense that jailhouse snitches were unconstitutionally deployed to gather information, and their work was then routinely concealed from defense attorneys.

On the witness stand, the head of the district attorney's homicide unit conceded that his office has failed to disclose information, including evidence gathered by informants, to defense attorneys in multiple cases. He insisted the errors were not malicious but agreed the evidence should now be turned over.

The revelation could potentially lead to new trials for accused killers and convicted criminals now serving prison sentences.

The hearing has also exposed the workings of two prolific jailhouse informants who were repeatedly tapped by law enforcement. One said he may have killed up to six people but is hoping his informant work will lead to his release. Another, a onetime shot caller for the Mexican Mafia, is hoping for a break in his own three-strikes case.

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Days after Dekraai arrived at the county jail, Fernando Perez, a longtime gang member with two pending cases, told deputies and prosecutors the shooting suspect had talked about his crimes. Officials responded by putting a recording device in Dekraai's cell, according to court records and testimony.

Prosecutors told the defense about the informant's statement and the recordings — which they hope will help put Dekraai on death row. What they didn't say was that Perez had a long history as a jailhouse snitch.

Only after a judge ordered the prosecution to hand over details about Perez's work did a picture emerge of an informant who had managed to land incriminating information on at least nine inmates, including two other defendants facing the death penalty — one accused of dismembering a neighbor in a double killing, the other convicted last year of killing his ex-girlfriend's family and burning their bodies, according to court records and testimony.

The defense also learned that soon after Dekraai arrived in jail, he was moved to a cell next to the informant, according to the records.

To protect the constitutional rights of suspects, courts have ruled that informants working as government agents cannot deliberately elicit statements from defendants after charges have been filed.

Perez testified that he never tried to get information from anyone and that defendants simply trusted him. He said he turned to informant work because it was the right thing to do, though he acknowledged it would help with his legal problems.

Before he became an informant, Perez helped prepare "hard candy" lists of people to be killed for the Mexican Mafia. But as an informant, he seemed to view himself as part of a law enforcement team, writing to deputies about completing missions and loving his "little job," court records show.

"I just want to get back home with my kids and I'll do whatever it takes to get there," Perez told a detective in an interview about Daniel Wozniak, the man accused of dismembering his neighbor.

In testimony over nearly three days, for which he was given immunity, Perez acknowledged lying multiple times — including under oath in his own case and in a letter to a judge asking for mercy.

Assistant Dist. Atty. Dan Wagner said Perez was never offered anything in exchange for information, but allowed that "one would be naive to think Mr. Perez wasn't seeking a benefit."

Robert Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, said prosecutors often don't make formal benefit agreements, meaning informants are free to testify that they were never promised anything.

"The real problem is there's an expectation of a reward for doing what he's doing," Warden said. "Almost invariably the person is rewarded."

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Like Perez, Oscar Moriel insists he never tried to get inmates to talk to him about their crimes. Yet testimony shows he documented inmates' confessions in multiple cases.

Charged with attempted murder and other crimes in 2005, Moriel produced hundreds of pages of notes detailing his steady work in the county jail, according to records and testimony.

But Moriel's voluminous notes were not fully disclosed — in one murder case in which Moriel testified, only four of more than 300 pages were given to the defense, according to records.

The defendant, Leonel Vega, is now serving a life sentence.

On the witness stand, Wagner, the assistant district attorney, said he now believes Vega "needs to have a full set of those Moriel notes … to look at and to determine if he is entitled to relief." He has also recommended that other defendants, including two reputed gang members, also get evidence that has not been turned over.

In testimony during the informant hearings, for which he was also granted immunity, Moriel described a dark past for which he had never been punished.

As a gang member, he said, he would regularly go out "hunting" for rival gang members — he was involved in at least a dozen shootings in which five or six people may have died, he said, but he has not been charged in those cases.

Scott Sanders, Dekraai's public defender, asked Moriel if he should do life in prison for the killings he committed.

"Who's to decide that scale of justice?" the informant replied. "I hope I get out soon one day.… I'm doing my part to cooperate. Does that speak volumes? I would hope so."

Wagner, who did not prosecute Vega or the two reputed gang members, blamed federal agents keeping information from prosecutors and oversized caseloads for the failures to disclose evidence.

In the Dekraai case, he said, he did not hand over information until ordered by the judge because he did not fully understand case law regarding informants.

"There's no systemwide conspiracy to ... cheat the defendants," Wagner told Sanders. "You have lots of facts that are dead wrong. But you do have some facts that are right."

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In Los Angeles, a scandal more than two decades ago involving jailhouse informants pushed the county to adopt tough policies restricting their use. Now, prosecutors must obtain permission from a committee before using a jailhouse informant as a witness. Other counties have been reluctant to adopt similar policies, experts say.

The Orange County hearing, which began in mid-March, may last another three weeks — significantly longer than Dekraai's actual trial is expected to last.

Dekraai's attorneys say the evidence shows a pattern of misuse of informants and withholding information, which should have serious consequences. They have asked the judge to throw out the death penalty against their client, recuse the district attorney's office and prohibit the recordings from being used at trial. A ruling is expected before the start of Dekraai's trial, now set to begin June 9.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com