By RACHANEE SRISAVASDI
Oct. 26, 2010
SANTA ANA John Depko has searched for truth in maximum-security
prisons and at bloody crime scenes.
He usually found it to the benefit of many caught up in the
criminal justice system, including one man imprisoned for more than
19 years for a murder he didn't commit.
Depko, 62, will retire next week as a senior investigator for the
Orange County Public Defender. He's worked at the agency, which
provides legal criminal defense to the poor, for more than 35 years.
Fighting for the rights of the accused is not a popular job: Folks
have hung up on him, slammed doors in his face.
"He really believes in the mission to represent these clients and get
them a fair shake in the legal system,'' said David Dworakowski, a
supervising defense attorney at the county agency. "John has never
shown burnout one minute of the time he's been here.
"He's made a difference for literally thousands of our clients."
A DIFFERENT WARRIOR
Depko grew up an Army brat, the eldest of five. He served in Vietnam
as an infantry lieutenant and platoon leader, and lost two friends
during a Viet Cong guerrilla attack in the Mekong Delta in 1969.
Depko, then 19, was wounded, and earned a Bronze Star for encouraging
his unit to fight back.
The war disillusioned him. He came back and joined the Vietnam
Veterans against the War.
He moved from the East Coast to Orange County and enrolled at UC
Irvine, majoring in Eastern philosophy. While in school he interned
at the public defender's office. He already had some experience,
having investigated court martial charges and writing reports while
he was recovering from his war injuries.
Depko describes defense investigators as law enforcement "watchdogs."
"This is the heart of our job: We keep cops honest,'' he added.
"That's why I do what I do."
There's always work to be done. About 150 investigative requests from
lawyers fill an inbox that sits outside Depko's office near the
Central Justice Center. Depko is tasked with determining the
seriousness of the cases, which range from car theft and drug
possession to armed robbery reports.
He distributes them among his team of 10 other investigators, who
then interview witnesses, visit defendants, pull records and snap
photos. They later report back to Depko.
Most cases, Depko says, share similar circumstances: An individual
was at the scene of an alleged crime, but the events didn't go down
exactly how the police officers or prosecutors describe them. That's
where defense investigators come in: They re-trace police footsteps,
examine crime scenes.
There always are two sides to a story.
'WHAT YOU LIVE FOR'
Depko's wife, Wendy, says that he may talk humorously about a case or
a verdict, but he doesn't let cases get to him.
But then there was the case of DeWayne McKinney.
McKinney was serving a life sentence for the 1980 murder in of Walter
Bell, the 18-year-old manager of a Burger King in Orange.
Eighteen years later, then-Public Defender Carl Holmes called Depko
into his office and asked him to investigate a letter from an inmate
who said his cousin was the getaway driver for the 1980 robbery and
murder. The inmate wrote that he knew the real killer and that it
Depko, who doesn't take anything at face value, had doubts. Maybe the
inmate was lying, and looking for a way to get out of prison himself.
Depko drove out to Lancaster State Prison to meet McKinney. He
figured McKinney would be an angry man, bitter at being incarcerated
for all those years.
McKinney was just the opposite. He kindly thanked Depko for coming to
visit. And yes, just as they had heard, he said was innocent.
The years in prison hadn't hardened McKinney. He was a devout
Christian who never joined a gang. He spent his years working in the
"He lost his wife and son. But there was this spiritual serenity
about him," Depko said.
Wendy Depko remembers her husband coming home that day.
"He looked at me so seriously and intently. He said, 'Oh my gosh,
this guy is innocent.'"
So began Depko's mission to free McKinney a search for truth that
took two years.
Depko worked on the case in his spare time. He tracked down a 1980
mug shot of the man identified by the inmate as the real killer, and
tracked down the former employees who identified McKinney. Three said
the man in the mug shot looked more like the killer, and that they
may have mistakenly identified McKinney.
Because of Depko's investigation, Orange County District Attorney
Tony Rackauckas eventually requested that McKinney be released.
"Here is a man who was wrongfully accused and convicted," Depko said.
"You're part of righting that. That's what you live for."
McKinney, who was released from prison on Jan. 28, 2000, stayed with
Depko those first couple weeks of freedom.
Depko recalls McKinney being startled by lawn sprinklers, staring at
trees or gazing up at the moon and the stars. Once, McKinney laughed
as he rode a bicycle in the rain. He hadn't felt raindrops in almost 20 years.
McKinney died in 2008 after a moped accident in Hawaii. He was 47.
Depko tears up a bit when talking about his friend.
"He came out of prison with a clean heart ... without pity, anger,
rancor,'' Depko said. "Just peace."
RETIRING? NOT QUITE
Depko's life hasn't been completely smooth. He's been married three
times. Cancer took away an adult son.
Depko, who lives in Costa Mesa, won't completely retire. He plans to
work part-time as a private investigator, and will continue to guest
lecture at local high schools about the consequences of having a
It would be too much of a loss for the system if Depko completely
retired, some say.
Michelle Nichols recalls Depko investigating the case of her father,
Daniel DeHaven, whose conviction for robbery and attempted rape was
overturned by an appeals court.
DeHaven, who served nine months in jail, always maintained his
innocence. DeHaven died of cancer in 2002.
"It meant so much to my father to have Depko believe in him,'' said
Nichols. "He had one glimmer of hope that Depko would bring out the truth."
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