FRESNO — For three weeks, the state prison guards union prevented homicide detectives from questioning guards about the fatal shooting of inmate Octavio Orozco at Pleasant Valley State Prison in May, county authorities say.
Fresno County Dist. Atty. Ed Hunt said Tuesday that the investigation into possible criminal conduct was hindered because of the delay in questioning both the guard who shot Orozco and the guards who witnessed the killing at the prison in Coalinga.
"The [union] attorney showed up, said he was representing all the officers, invoked an attorney-client privilege, and we were handcuffed from talking to the officers," Hunt said. "Three weeks might be a long time, but if we find out the officers concocted their stories during that time or obstructed justice, that's a high crime in Fresno County and we'll prosecute."
The case is the latest example of accusations that the powerful guards union has thwarted criminal and administrative investigations into brutality at prisons statewide. The FBI is currently investigating whether actions by the union at nearby Corcoran State Prison constituted obstruction of justice, federal authorities say.
Union officials have characterized their efforts as tough but lawful representation of their members.
The Orozco case is also an example of officials in some counties failing to use all the options at their disposal to investigate shootings of inmates by prison guards.
Over the last 10 years, for example, county prosecutors have failed to question witnesses in many of the 39 shooting deaths in California's prisons.
In some shooting incidents that have been investigated, county prosecutors have encountered union resistance. None of the shooting deaths has yet led to a criminal prosecution.
In the Pleasant Valley shooting, Hunt said his office decided not to call a grand jury to try to compel the officers to talk, or to offer any immunity deals. Such deals, designed to get officers to testify against each other, might give immunity to the wrong officer early in an investigation.
But Hunt said he was not aware of a law that requires a guard to cooperate with a criminal investigation. The law is an important tool that can be used to urge prison officers to cooperate under the threat of insubordination.
Accounts Differ of Slaying Aftermath
Fresno County homicide investigators said that, prior to the Orozco slaying, they had not encountered a peace officers union blocking interviews with officers who witnessed or participated in a shooting. They concede that they allowed the union to dictate the terms of the Orozco investigation, and that the delay cost them valuable time and jeopardized the truthful flow of information.
"I can see them denying us access to the guard who shot the inmate for a day or two, but not for 22 days and not the guards who were pure witnesses," said one homicide detective, who asked not to be named because of a county policy to not comment on pending investigations.
"As an investigator, the last thing you want is to wait that long to get statements because they can all get their stories straight," he said.
The seven-month investigation has not yet concluded.
The union attorney who represented the Pleasant Valley officers, Chris Howard, was unavailable for comment this week. Don Novey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., said Howard may have kept detectives that night from interviewing the guard who shot Orozco because the guard was in shock.
But Novey said he wasn't aware of Howard fending off investigators from the Fresno County Sheriff's Department and district attorney for three weeks.
"That's news to me," he said. "I sure didn't slow that down. Our protest there was the way [management] handled our staff."
Novey said Howard was sent to the prison in the middle of the night to represent union members. "It was the first ever shooting at a new prison. We make sure there's counsel on the spot. These aren't everyday occurrences."
Novey added that Howard was "5-foot-3 and 115 pounds" and incapable of intimidating anyone.
But according to prison staff and corrections officials, the union attorney was allowed unusual access to officers and official reports in the immediate hours after Orozco was fatally shot during a 6 p.m. fight in the dining hall.
Prison staff and corrections officials said Howard walked into a lieutenant's office and obtained official reports before even the warden or county investigators had a chance to see them. Howard refused to return the documents and got into a scuffle with a captain who had to snatch the reports out of his hand, prison staff and officials said.
"The union went in and started grabbing documents, and they ended up in a tug-of-war over the documents," said Richard Ehle, who heads internal affairs at the state Corrections Department.