Jail ‘Snitches’ as Witnesses: Credibility is Key Question
The murder case against William Lee Evins, accused of bludgeoning a Fountain Valley woman, was all but destroyed two years ago when an appellate court decision eliminated a key witness.
But along came James Dean Cochrum, 24, a cell mate of Evins in Orange County Jail. Cochrum became the prosecution’s star witness when he testified at a preliminary hearing that Evins, 31, had confessed the murder to him.
Then there was the case of two Bellflower men charged with murder in the kidnap-slaying of a Rossmoor woman. Cochrum told prosecutors he overheard them confessing the crime, according to court records.
Court records in a pending murder case show that a jail informant told authorities he overheard Adolpho Aguirre, of Anaheim, confess to committing a murder. The informant: Cochrum again.
In still another case, court records show that Cochrum told district attorney’s investigators that in a jail conversation Elliott Beal, of Costa Mesa, provided incriminating details about how he had killed his wife. For Cochrum, it was the fifth time he had informed on an Orange County Jail inmate.
Defense lawyers in Orange County say Cochrum is the most prolific jail informant that they have ever seen. But he is not the only one.
The Orange County Jail places a continuing flow of inmates in protective custody because they are potential witnesses against fellow inmates. In the last five years, jail informants have testified in more than a hundred major Orange County cases.
Jail inmates call them “snitches.”
Defense lawyers detest them. Prosecutors say that jail informants can be just as legitimate as other kinds of witnesses.
“One thing I’ve learned in this business: Inmates love to talk about their crimes,” said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James Enright. “If we think an informant is telling the truth, and we can corroborate what he says, you bet we’ll use him.”
Nobody denies that informants usually want help in their own cases in exchange for their testimony. But prosecutors insist that an informant’s selfish motive does not mean that he is lying.
Most defense lawyers, however, agree with Santa Ana attorney Ronald Brower, who said, “Jail informants are a nightmare.”
Brower said that jurors often believe jail informants without question because “they tend to have faith that the district attorney’s office wouldn’t put on anybody who would lie.”
Yet most informants, Brower and others say, have lengthy records of crime and histories of lying.
“What’s frustrating is that any time it’s a close case, you know that the prosecutor is going to come up with a snitch,” said defense attorney Jennifer Keller, of Irvine.
Attorney Ronald Kreber, of Newport Beach, blames defense attorneys--himself included--for not pushing judges harder to keep jail informants off the witness stand.
Only one Superior Court judge, Francisco Briseno, has refused to let a jail informant testify in recent years. That was three years ago in a murder trial, when Briseno decided the informant lacked credibility. But most judges accept the prosecution argument that credibility questions should be up to the jury.
Can Make a Difference
There is no doubt that jail informants can make a difference.
For example, prosecutors were convinced three years ago that 19-year-old F-Troop gang member Johnny Salmon had been the triggerman in a Santa Ana killing for which two accomplices had been convicted.
Salmon, in jail for another crime, allegedly boasted to cell mates that he was the triggerman. A minor drug offender in the cell told his attorney and the attorney called the district attorney’s office. A few months later, Salmon was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting, and his cell mate was the key prosecution witness.
In 1981, trucker Robert Bray was killed when his truck cab fell on him in Huntington Beach. Authorities assumed it was an accident, but six months later, an inmate in the Los Angeles County Jail, Richard Kish, told police that his cell mate, Willie Wisely, had boasted that he had rigged the cab to fall. Wisely, 31, in jail on a robbery charge, was Bray’s stepson.
Kish’s information, prosecutors contended later in court, triggered a new investigation that led to Wisely’s first-degree murder conviction in his stepfather’s death.
Three jail informants were important witnesses against part-time photographer Rodney Alcala, 40, who was sentenced to death in 1981 for killing 12-year-old Robin Samsoe of Huntington Beach.
All three testified at Alcala’s murder trial that he had confessed to them separately in jail. Jail informant Michael Herrera was the only prosecution witness who testified that the girl had been kidnaped, enabling the prosecution to seek the death penalty.
Key Retrial Testimony
Alcala’s conviction was reversed last August by the state Supreme Court on a technicality unrelated to the informants’ testimony. In fact, the high court cited Herrera’s testimony as important evidence that Alcala had kidnaped the girl. When Alcala is retried, Herrera is expected to be a main prosecution witness.
Jurors sometimes trust jail informants more than they realize.
Two months ago, a jury was deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of convicting Michael Garritson, of Fullerton, of second-degree murder in a child’s death. The deadlock resulted in a hung jury; a second trial is pending.
In the trial, the prosecution used two jail informants and the defense used one. Jurors said they didn’t believe any of the informants, but in later conversations, some jurors who voted for conviction indicated that some of the damaging testimony from one of the prosecution informants had been a factor.
Prosecutors understand defense attorneys’ frustrations over jail informants, but Deputy Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who has used informants in several cases, is critical of those critics:
“Defense lawyers often see informants as disloyal to their fellow inmates, but that’s like saying we are supposed to accept the code of ethics that exists in the jail,” Rackauckas said.
Prosecutors say they turn down more informants than they use. And prosecutors all insist that they follow one hard and fast rule: “We never put anyone on the witness stand we don’t believe is telling the truth,” Enright said.
A test, prosecutors say, is whether the informant knows things about the crime that were never printed in a newspaper, or that only the defendant would have known.
But many defense attorneys say such information often circulates around the jail. Defendants often keep copies of police reports about their cases. Defense attorneys say it is common for other inmates to steal the reports or peruse them while the defendant is away from his cell.
One former Orange County Jail inmate, George Sidebottom, said copies of police reports circulate through the jail like old magazines.
Sidebottom at first was an informant against Walter Black, of Orange, in a 1982 child killing. But he told Superior Court Judge Robert H. Green in a hearing that he and three other informants had fabricated their stories. Black was later convicted of second-degree murder, but no informants testified at the trial.
Sidebottom, who was serving two years for attempted manslaughter, said he agreed to lie and say Black confessed to him because a police officer “promised me the moon on my case.”
Attorney Keith Monroe, representing Alcala, insists that an informant’s incentive to lie “is overwhelming.”
“In every case, you can bet there’s a payoff down the road,” Monroe said.
What bothers most defense attorneys is that jurors are always told no deals were made between prosecutor and informant, yet deals seem to materialize after a case.
How Deals Materialize
Fred McBride, a Santa Ana defense attorney who has represented informants, said it usually works like this: “The prosecutor says he won’t give us a deal, but he winks. He doesn’t really wink, but he winks. So you go back to your client and say, ‘I can’t get you a deal, but based on my experience, I can tell you I think they’ll give you a break.’ ”
Prosecutors do not deny that they have to make such subtle bargains, but prosecutor Rackauckas objects to the implication that anything insidious takes place.
“Let’s say a drug user testifies against a murderer,” Rackauckas explained. “Right away, he’s labeled a snitch within the jail, which puts his life in danger. He’s put in what amounts to solitary confinement. He’s testifying in the face of tremendous criticism from defense attorneys. He has taken a hell of a chance for us.
“It’s only natural that a judge is going to take that into consideration when his case comes up. And it’s only natural that the prosecutor he’s just helped is going to be in his corner.”
Ed Freeman, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Wisely in the death of his trucker stepfather, argues that in many cases informants want to testify because they are shocked by the information they have heard or because they have undergone a religious conversion. Defense lawyers, however, say they doubt that this happens often.
Whatever their motives, the supply of informants is not drying up.
In a recent murder case, Bower said, 14 jail inmates told authorities that Bower’s client confessed to them. And a well-known defense attorney, who requested anonymity, said a client in a Riverside murder case was in the Orange County Jail for a brief time, yet four inmates are named as potential informants.
Most Used Informant
But no informant has attracted as much attention in the county as James Dean Cochrum. Attorneys for the five Orange County defendants in cases involving Cochrum all say that Cochrum’s testimony can’t be trusted, but prosecutors contend that just because Cochrum is involved in a lot of cases does not mean he is lying.
According to the county clerk’s records, Cochrum was discharged from the U.S. Army four years ago after allegedly writing bad checks. He later went to prison in Utah on a credit-card theft conviction. He was sent to jail in Orange County last year on convictions of stealing $2,500 worth of antique furniture, credit cards and $100.
Cochrum, now serving two consecutive 180-day terms, is nearing the end of his sentence and has been kept, for his protection, in a city jail instead of the county Jail.
It is the Evins case that has brought an outcry from defense attorneys. Evins has been in jail nearly five years, awaiting trial in the slaying of Joan Anderson at her Fountain Valley home.
An acquaintance of Evins, Randy Wanner, told police that Evins confessed he killed Anderson, but Wanner had been hypnotized by police to evoke details of Evins’ alleged confession. A state Supreme Court ruling in 1982 that barred most testimony from hypnotized defendants made prosecution of Evins almost impossible.
After the court’s hypnosis ruling, but before that ruling officially was applied to the Evins case, Cochrum told authorities that Evins had confessed to him.
“That’s a classic,” said defense attorney David Haigh of Santa Ana. “A guy sits in jail for four years without saying a word about his case, and then when it looks like the case is lost, suddenly a snitch says Evins confesses. It’s a classic example of how the snitch system works.”
The irony is that the same defense attorneys upset about Cochrum have high praise for the integrity of Evins’ prosecutor, John Conley, who had never used a jail informant before.
Conley scoffs at critics who say his office turned to Cochrum to save a lost case. He says Cochrum “came forward before we knew the court’s (hypnosis) ruling.”
Prosecutor Rackauckas also has an interest in Cochrum. Rackauckas is prosecuting the Bellflower men charged with murder.
But Rackauckas said he is not worried about Cochrum’s credibility. Cochrum, he said, is going to be much more believable to juries than defense attorneys want to admit.
“Ideally, all my witnesses would be bishops and nuns,” Rackauckas said. “But that’s not the real world.”