Los Angeles law enforcement authorities, concerned that innocent defendants could have been convicted of murders because of testimony fabricated by jail-house informants, this week began an extraordinary review of every case in the last decade in which one inmate testified that another had confessed in jail.
The painstaking review was ordered after a longtime informant demonstrated convincingly that, while in jail, he could gather enough information about a murder case to implicate a defendant he had apparently never met.
The informant gathered the information from a jail telephone by persuading law enforcement authorities over the phone that he was a prosecutor and, at other times, a police officer.
Los Angeles County Assistant Sheriff Dick Foreman said his department and other law enforcement agencies are “very concerned.”
“We’re a justice agency,” Foreman said. “We would hate to think that someone was convicted based on this kind of scenario. That’s why we’re taking steps to make sure that this (a wrongful conviction) did not happen.”
Foreman said, however, that while such a conviction was possible, he thought that the chances of it having happened were remote.
Foreman, who oversees the Sheriff’s Department’s jails, said he doubted that many jail informants had the sophistication to trick law enforcement personnel into giving them detailed information about another inmate’s case.
Also, he said, law enforcement officers tend to be skeptical, and seek verification, of confessions reported by jail-house informants, who usually want leniency in return for their testimony.
However, a leading defense lawyer disputed that assessment, saying law enforcement authorities were not skeptical enough.
“I think that one of the most abused aspects of the criminal justice system is the use of jail-house informants,” said Richard G. Hirsch of Los Angeles, former president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a group of 2,000 private defense lawyers.
“In almost every major murder case in this county, if the case appears to be weak, or if there (are) problems in trial, at some point a jail-house informant comes forth alleging that the suspect has confessed to the crime,” Hirsch said.
“Those of us involved in criminal defense work have always believed that these are not legitimate . . . confessions. . . . Every lawyer that I know of, the first thing he tells a client is don’t talk to anybody in jail, because the place is crawling with informants. . . . It’s just inconceivable that criminal defendants are running around the jail copping out to people.”
Could Fake Confession
Foreman said the informant, Leslie Vernon White, demonstrated within the last week or two how he could gather enough information to fake a murder confession by another inmate through use of a pay telephone in the jail house. Courts have required the Sheriff’s Department to give inmates virtually unlimited access to telephones, Foreman said.
For the demonstration, sheriff’s deputies furnished White with the last name of an inmate. Deputies thought it highly unlikely White knew the inmate, who was in fact charged with murder.
The assistant sheriff said White began by calling the inmate reception center at the county jail and posing as a bail bondsman to get information normally available to the public about any jail inmate. He found out the first name and booking number, the charge, the court, the bail, the date of arrest and the name of the county jail in which the inmate was housed.
Then he called the district attorney’s records office, identifying himself as “Deputy D.A. Michaels, from court upstairs,” and was able to learn the name of the deputy district attorney assigned to prosecute the case and when the crime occurred.
He then called the district attorney’s witness coordinator and got the phone number for the courtroom in which the case was being handled.
Then he called the sheriff’s homicide squad, identified himself as a sheriff’s sergeant assigned to the jail and was able to find out the name of the victim in the case and which sheriff’s station was handling the investigation.
Then he called the deputy district attorney actually assigned to the case. He identified himself as a Los Angeles police sergeant who had informants of his own who were talking about the case. White said he needed to know details of the case from the prosecutor so that he could test the veracity of his informants. The prosecutor gave him details, Foreman said.
Finally, Foreman said White was aware that if he were to testify about a confession, he would need to show that he had been in the same physical environs as the inmate who purportedly confessed.
To accomplish this, he made another phone call. Posing as a deputy district attorney, he called a sheriff’s deputy working as a bailiff in a suburban court and said that he would be at that court soon and needed to interview two inmates--White and the murder suspect.
The bailiff agreed to arrange their transportation to the court, where they would have been placed in the same holding cell while waiting for the supposed-deputy district attorney to interview them.
On Thursday, Foreman said the Sheriff’s Department notified the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office of the potential problem.
Richard Hecht, director of the district attorney’s branch operations, said his agency’s review began Friday afternoon. “We don’t know the extent of the problem but we are finding out,” he said.
He noted that jail-house informants are used in an extremely small percentage of cases, and that the cases typically involved major crimes.
Examine Each Case
Hecht said his office planned to examine each case in which an informant had testified about a jail-house confession during the last 10 years or so.
“Our question is: Was justice served in each case?” Hecht said. “This is going to be an aggressive inquiry. We want to get to the truth whether it’s good or bad.”
Hecht also said the district attorney’s office is reviewing the way it deals with informants. While that review is under way, high-level approval of their use will be required, he said.
Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Lt. Fred Nixon said: “We’re looking at all such cases from recent years . . . where there was a jail-house informant. I don’t have a precise number.”
He said the department was preparing a memo to emphasize to its officers “the necessity to corroborate and look at the information from jail-house informants very cautiously.”
Capt. Dick Walls, the Sheriff’s Department’s chief spokesman, said he expects the inquiry to eventually branch out from murder cases to cover all cases “in which there is a possibility that a jail-house informant’s testimony was crucial to a prosecution.”
Spokesmen for both the Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office indicated that they would place special emphasis on scrutinizing cases involving White.
White told sheriff’s deputies that he had never obtained information by phone this way himself nor faked another inmate’s confession, but that he had learned the method by watching others, Foreman said.
Foreman said White did not cite any cases in which confessions had been faked.
Neither Foreman nor Hecht said he knew how many cases White had testified in since he began his career as an informant in the late 1970s. However, there were apparently quite a few.
Los Angeles Superior Court records contain a report from the state Department of Corrections stating that, at one point in 1986 alone, White “was giving testimony as a witness on six homicides.”
The same records contain comments from prosecutors about White’s helpfulness as an informant. One prosecutor from Fresno reported that White had helped in an unspecified fashion in the prosecution of a “prominent member of the Mexican Mafia.”
Another prosecutor from Los Angeles was quoted in the records as saying that White “has been helpful in informing on members of the Aryan Brotherhood.” Both groups are prison gangs. White, 30, was contacted at the Hall of Justice jail on Friday where he is being held in protective custody under another name in an area of the jail occupied by about 100 people who have been identified as informants.
White, who has a long felony record that includes convictions for kidnaping and grand theft, now faces charges of receiving stolen property. He declined to be interviewed on the advice of his attorney, who did not return a telephone call to his office.