But don’t believe for a second that this is a uniquely Orange County problem. I pointed out in a post in May a couple stories I’ve personally reported in which prosecutors willingly put on informant testimony that they should have known wasn’t true. The problem is that there’s so little accountability for prosecutors. It’s just far too easy to skirt ethical rules, even to break the law, in procuring damning testimony from an informant. (And let’s be honest here, these are people whom those same prosecutors wouldn’t trust for a moment in just about any other context.) Prosecutors have very little to fear for going too far. Professional sanctions are rare. Save for a very few high-profile cases, criminal charges are unheard of. And they’re shielded from civil liability by absolute immunity.
The scandal in Orange County is only a scandal thanks to the work of a brave public defender named Scott Sanders and some dogged reporting by local journalists. Alexandra Natapoff, a criminologist and author of the book Snitching, captures the real lesson from Orange County in a quote she gave to Lithwick: “What’s newsworthy is not that it’s unique. What’s newsworthy is that we actually found out.”