Los Angeles County district attorney officials said Saturday that they are considering making it harder to get information about criminal cases over the telephone, as the result of a recent security breach in which a jail-house informant demonstrated that he could pose as a prosecutor and police officer to learn about another inmate’s case.
The informant made a series of calls from a telephone in jail and conned district attorney and Sheriff’s Department officials into giving him enough information about a murder case to implicate a defendant he had apparently never met.
The informant did not actually fabricate the defendant’s confession. Rather, he conducted a demonstration--showing his jailers that he could make up a convincing confession if he chose to.
Although he said he had never done this before, his demonstration triggered an extraordinary review, which began on Friday, of the legitimacy of every case in the last decade in Los Angeles County in which someone was convicted in part on the basis of a jail-house confession.
In addition, Richard Hecht, the district attorney’s chief of branch operations, who has been placed in charge of that investigation, said Saturday, “We’re reviewing our security procedures with respect to the release of information.”
Hecht did not specify what procedures were being considered, but indicated that there are limits to how far the office can clamp down. “We also have in mind here that we are a public office,” he said. “We are constantly sought after by victims, witnesses, police officers, interested people in connection with case information.”
However, another district attorney official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the office is considering requiring any caller who claims to be a law enforcement officer, and is not personally known to the recipient of the call, to leave the telephone number of his agency. The district attorney staff member who takes the call would then be required to call him back to verify his identity, before giving out any information.
Also reportedly under consideration is a policy that would forbid giving out the names, addresses or phone numbers of witnesses over the telephone to anyone.
Finally, district attorney officials are also reportedly considering setting up a system to keep track of who makes requests for information.
Assistant Sheriff Dick Foreman said the Sheriff’s Department is also considering a policy to encourage deputies to verify the identities of callers before giving out case information.
Not a Surprise
Meanwhile, Leslie Vernon White, the longtime jail-house informant whose demonstration sparked the review, called The Times on Saturday and asserted that his demonstration should not have come as a surprise to the authorities.
White, after establishing his identity to the satisfaction of a reporter who had met him briefly the day before, said Los Angeles County prosecutors have been told in the past about the method he used in his demonstration, but did not act to stop the practice.
“They’ve known about this for quite some time,” he said, referring to what he said was the ability of some jail-house informants to get access to information about other inmates’ cases by phone by pretending to be law enforcement agents with a legitimate need to know.
White asserted, however, that law enforcement authorities do not usually show much interest in how an informant obtains his information. “They don’t corroborate nothing,” he said.
These assessments were disputed by law enforcement officials.
Foreman said he became aware of the method only in the last week or so when White told his jailers that he could gather the information by phone, was challenged to prove it and did.
Hecht said the method had been news to him and “on an institutional basis, I can’t believe that (we knew previously). . . . Bear in mind, the inquiry is just getting off the ground. But (I can’t believe that) simply because it’s not our way of doing business. We seek convictions using appropriate legal, ethical means.”
White, 30, has been a jail-house informant for various agencies for nearly a decade. He is currently awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to grand theft.
White said Saturday that he has told the truth in every case he has been involved in, but he declined to go into detail about his career as an informant--trading information about others for leniency for himself--or about his reasons for going public now.
“I have an obligation under contract with another media avenue,” he explained. “I gave my word to them that I would give them the whole story.”
Foreman of the Sheriff’s Department said White has written an article about his methods and submitted it to California Magazine.
No Other Information
He said he believes that White offered to conduct the demonstration because he had no other information to offer authorities.
“Our homicide people said that as an informant his credibility is nil,” Foreman said. “In other words, he keeps trying, but nobody is buying.”
However, White said that he was involved with nine murder cases last year. That claim could not be verified Saturday.