Danny Pham, a 27-year-old Westminster native, was serving a six-month sentence in an Orange County jail for a non-violent offense. He was close to completing his sentence. Instead, he ended up dead.
Danny had been placed in a cell with an admitted murderer who had confessed to stabbing two men. On the night of July 3, eight days before his release, Danny's lifeless body was found in the cell — he had been strangled.
Not only had Orange County Sheriff custody deputies failed to keep Danny safe by housing him alone or with a similarly classified person, they had allegedly failed to conduct the mandated safety checks on the cell that should have been done at least every 30 minutes. Danny's body was found nearly four hours after he had been murdered, long after any chance to take life-saving measures.
So, what action did the Orange County District Attorney take against the custody deputies and administrators whose actions led to Danny Pham's death? None.
The district attorney's office recently announced it would not bring criminal charges against anyone in the sheriff deputy's department in connection with what happened to Danny. This was not a surprise. Last year the ACLU Foundation of Southern California issued "OC Jails," a report on abhorrent conditions in the Orange County jails that included the fact that 48 in-custody deaths had occurred in the jails system from 2010 to 2016.
Numerous investigation reports on in-custody deaths are archived on the Orange County District Attorney's web site. None of these investigations resulted in criminal charges being brought against sheriff deputies.
In many cases, the only justice that family members received for the deaths of their loved ones was civil suit payouts that the county, through its taxpayers, funded.
The "OC Jails" report, using first person experiences and accounts, found a dangerous, corrupt culture of violence inside the jails, including dangerous cell placement and custody staff beatings. Those who dared report mistreatment, while inside, sometimes suffered retaliation, including more beatings. Hours after the report was released, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens announced she would retire and not run for re-election.
But the lack of transparency and apathy in holding law enforcement accountable continued, casting a dark shadow over every in-custody death inside the OC jails system. To say that Danny's death allegedly rests solely on his cell mate is wrong. The Orange County Sheriff's Department should be liable both criminally and civilly, for its failures — as should the OC District Attorney's office for not holding the sheriff deputies accountable.
Any death inside the jails should mandate a swift investigation by an independent oversight entity. The district attorney's office cannot be trusted to do the right thing when dealing with jail matters.
The sheriff and the district attorney have tremendous influence over Orange County's criminal justice system. But it's the voters who ultimately hold that power because they will decide who will serve in those positions.
For Danny Pham's sake — and for the sake of the community — voters should take that responsibility with the utmost seriousness.