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How an illegal jailhouse snitch operation backfired, derailing an California murder conviction

How an illegal jailhouse snitch operation backfired, derailing an California murder conviction

Days before suspected killer Paul Gentile Smith arrived at Orange County jail in June 2009, sheriff’s investigators were already plotting to put him with a group of informants.

Cold-case investigators had used DNA evidence to link Smith to the 1988 killing of his childhood friend and sometimes marijuana supplier, Robert Haugen, in Sunset Beach. Orange County sheriff’s investigators arrested Smith in Nevada, where he was in custody on a domestic abuse charge.

According to court papers, investigators Raymond Wert and Donald Voght drove Smith from Las Vegas with two goals in mind: get a confession and develop evidence that Smith was orchestrating an attempt to kill Wert.

What was secret at the time was that prosecutors and deputies had previously created a clandestine network of jailhouse informants to coax confessions out of targeted inmates. Such an operation is illegal when used on charged defendants who have attorneys because it violates their right to counsel under the 1964 case Massiah v. United States. Smith was charged within two days after arriving at the jail.

The three informants unleashed on Smith should have been disclosed to his attorneys as required by law, but that evidence was withheld until nine years after Smith’s 2010 trial. Because of that misconduct, Smith’s conviction was overturned and a new trial was ordered.

However, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders last week filed a 424-page motion asking that murder charges against Smith be dropped altogether because then-prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh’s alleged concealment of the evidence — and subsequent cover-up — damaged Smith’s ability to get a fair trial. Baytieh is now an elected and well-respected Superior Court judge.

The Orange County court has transferred the Smith case to San Diego County Superior Court Judge Daniel Goldstein without stating a reason, though a potential conflict of interest is suspected because Baytieh now serves on the Orange County bench.

Baytieh did not return a message left on his cellphone seeking comment. A spokesman for the court responded that judges and their staff are ethically bound not to comment on pending or impending matters before the bench. A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department has said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Sent to ‘snitch tank’

After arriving in Orange County in 2009, Smith was sent to Module L-20, later dubbed the “snitch tank” because that’s where informants were put together with targeted inmates.

Informants Jeffrey Platt and Paul Martin had asked deputies if they and another inmate, Arthur Palacios, could be assigned to the same day room time slot as Smith, according to a previously secret log kept by deputies. Informing can be helpful to inmates looking for leniency in their own cases.

“They feel if they get this time with Smith, they can get details on his crime. I told them I didn’t have a problem with this and would pass it on,” a deputy wrote in the log.

Platt would become the first informant to tell lead investigator Wert that Smith had confessed in jail to the killing. Platt also would tell Wert that Smith was trying to hire a hitman for $8,000 to kill the detective. According to the motion, Platt was just pretending to help Smith arrange the hit. While Baytieh would later paint Platt as a legitimate threat to the investigator, he never prosecuted nor investigated Platt for the attempted hit, according to the motion.

Key informant emerges

Sanders said it seemed to investigators they had struck gold with Platt.

When Wert and Voght first sat down with Platt in the offices of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Sanders wrote, “there seemed to be little doubt that they believed that they had just met the informant they needed both to seal the murder case against Smith and to support new charges against Smith for a planned attack on Wert and others.”

Wert started off the July 2009 interview with Platt by telling him that prosecutor Baytieh would be told about the assistance he was providing, but there was no guarantee he would receive consideration, according to the motion.

From there the interview went downhill. The talkative Platt told investigators precisely how the trio of informants interrogated Smith, in violation of his Massiah rights.

To get Smith to feel comfortable, Platt said he falsely told Smith that his father was a prosecutor and could help fight the murder charge, according to the motion.

It should have been obvious to deputies that the informant group’s conversations with Smith were now inadmissible in court, Sanders wrote.

According to Platt, the group pushed, mocked and prodded Smith until he cracked and started talking, the motion said. Under the law, informants are supposed to be a “listening post,” unable to ask any questions of targeted inmates who have retained attorneys and been charged.

Interview not disclosed

With such a disastrous — and taped — interview of Platt, investigators had only one solution: hide or manipulate all evidence related to Platt to ensure that the constitutional rights violations remained undiscovered, Sanders wrote.

The Platt interview was not disclosed to the defense until nine years after Smith was convicted. Baytieh would have been responsible for turning over the interview to defense lawyers, but he told federal investigators he didn’t know Platt was an informant in the Smith case until six years after the trial, according to the motion. Sanders finds that explanation implausible.

“(Baytieh) turned over to the defense a phony police report designed to hide that Platt was an informant, and instead made him look like a dangerous criminal helping Smith carry out an attack on Sergeant Wert,” Sanders said in an email.

In his interview, Platt referred to a phone call he received in which Smith makes remarks pointing to his own innocence. A recording of that call was collected and booked into evidence by a sheriff’s investigator in September 2009, but not given to the defense until July 2022.

Crucial new informant

With all the problems surrounding Platt, the prosecution team shifted to Palacios as the key informant. For that to work, Palacios would have to make it appear he spontaneously heard Smith’s admissions, without any questioning or prodding, Sanders wrote.

So in September 2009, Palacios was taken to sheriff’s headquarters and interviewed twice in one day, first by investigator Bill Beeman. According to Sanders, it appears the interview was not recorded, or, if it was, it was concealed. Two months after the interview, Beeman filed a written report outlining what purportedly was said.

The second interview was with Wert and Voght. Palacios said all the right things, explaining he was moved to the “snitch tank” to generally “keep his eyes and ears open.” Palacios had worked extensively in the past as an informant.

Palacios said in the sheriff’s interview he had never heard of Smith until they met in custody. Palacios mentioned Platt only in relation to him helping Smith hire a hitman to attack Wert.

In his interview, Palacios said it was just happenstance that he, Platt and Martin were placed in the same jail day room as Smith — when, in actuality, it had been well-planned, Sanders wrote.

Palacios said Smith admitted to stabbing Haugen 18 times with a pair of scissors. He added that Smith became enraged with investigators for asking Smith’s family whether the suspect had a homosexual relationship with Haugen, the motion said.

Palacios said he did not quiz Smith, but let the suspect come to him, as instructed by investigators. Palacios said he did “(l)ike I was told to do, just lay back, suck it up, write it down.”

But Voght and Wert never confronted Palacios about Platt’s earlier statements, that the contact between the three informants and Smith had been previously organized, according to the motion.

Selective disclosure

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Baytieh turned over the reports and recording on the Palacios interviews in a timely manner to the Smith defense, but nothing about Platt being an informant.

Further evidence of a scheme to hide Platt’s damaging interview can be found in the sheriff’s booking system, according to the motion. Two minutes after the July 2009 interview of Platt was booked into the system, investigators booked the September 2009 interview of Palacios.

But while the Palacios interview was turned over in time for the 2010 trial, defense attorneys did not get the Platt interview until 2019 — after federal civil rights lawyers looking into the county’s informant network confronted Baytieh with the interview’s existence.

Yet Baytieh portrayed himself to federal investigators as a stickler for disclosing evidence.

“Here is what I tell the cops: ‘If you’re picking up the informant from the jail because you don’t want him to come on the bus and you stop by Starbucks and you get a cup of coffee and he asks you for a cup of coffee and you give him a cup of coffee, let the DA know that so we can discover that information to the defense attorney,”‘ Baytieh told investigators.

Sanders said Baytieh’s comment was disingenuous. “It was just another example of the complete disconnect between what Baytieh preaches and what he practices,” said the motion.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation ultimately concluded that prosecutors and deputies had indeed violated defendants’ rights through the illegal use of jailhouse informants. Highlighted in the federal report was the Smith case.

“The Department of Justice’s investigation was invaluable in exposing the wrongdoing in this case,” Sanders said in an email. “But just like the defense, they were only aware of a fraction of the concealed evidence and the misconduct.”