According to one veteran Los Angeles County prosecutor, jailhouse informants are “conscienceless sociopaths to whom truth is a wholly meaningless concept.” A former prosecutor turned judge, blunter still, calls inmates who snitch on cellmates in exchange for official leniency “the scum of the Earth.” Local defense attorneys long have complained that prosecutors misuse informants, encouraging them to fabricate evidence and concoct confessions by promising them favors. But until last week no one had made any serious effort to restrict the growing use of snitches.
Now the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has issued guidelines that could eliminate some of the worst abuses. The county’s 800 prosecutors have been warned that they may no longer call a jailhouse informant as a witness without “concrete evidence” that he is telling the truth. The guidelines cite only two examples of evidence weighty enough to meet this standard--a tape recording, obtained by the informant, of another inmate’s confession, or a document, in the inmate’s own handwriting, admitting his guilt. It is not clear from the guidelines whether other forms of “concrete evidence” might suffice and what they might be--a potentially significant loophole.
Still, the guidelines are an improvement over the district attorney’s previous policy, which was both amorphous and irresponsible. Essentially his office left the decision to use an informant up to each prosecutor. The new regulations, by contrast, require the unanimous endorsement of three of the DA’s highest-ranking deputies before an informant can be called as a witness.
If these guidelines are scrupulously enforced, they will end the snitching careers of veteran informants like Leslie Vernon White. It was White, a convicted robber and car thief, who triggered the DA’s review of of jailhouse informants by snitching last month on the very system that had rewarded him so handsomely over the years. From inside County Jail, White demonstrated to sheriff’s deputies that, with a few phone calls, he could collect enough information to incriminate an inmate whom he had never even met. He insisted that he had never done this himself in actual cases, only watched others do it, but in interviews he has come close to admitting perjury. “Do you know the statute of limitations on perjury?” he asked Times staff writer Ted Rohrlich.
As Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Hecht continues his review of all prosecutions over the past decade in which an informant’s testimony helped convict another inmate, specific injustices may come to light. Hecht has said, admittedly on the basis of incomplete evidence, that so far he has encountered no evidence of wrongful convictions. But, because of defense attorneys’ complaints, the district attorney’s office has decided to share its information with the defense Bar and let defense attorneys decide whether to reopen some old cases or seek new trials.
While we’re encouraged about the actions taken by the district attorney’s office, there is still a need for a full investigation of individual prosecutors who have used testimony from White and other snitches whose truthfulness is in doubt. White in particular seems to have had highly placed protectors in law-enforcement agencies throughout Southern California; prosecutors and police officials arranged New Year’s furloughs for him, pressured judges to reduce his bail and accept onesided plea bargains and treated White, a habitual criminal, like a trusted colleague. Only a truly independent prosecutor or a commission should decide whether White and his law-enforcement handlers committed any crimes when he took the witness stand. The district attorney’s office cannot be expected to make reasoned, impartial decisions about whether to prosecute its own prosecutors.