D.A., Defense Lawyers at Odds on Inquiry Into Jailhouse Informants

Times Staff Writer

An effort to catalogue the criminal cases in which jailhouse informants acted as witnesses has been complicated by a rift between prosecutors conducting an official inquiry and defense attorneys who are pursuing their own independent investigation.

A lawyer coordinating the defense Bar’s probe of jailhouse informants said this week that the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, which is conducting the official investigation, has failed to uncover at least 30 cases in which jailhouse informants are believed to have testified.

Gigi Gordon, head of the informant investigation committee of the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Bar Assn., said the discrepancy demonstrates that the district attorney’s review has been flawed.

However, Richard Hecht, a senior official in the district attorney’s office who has had a key role in the inquiry, said, “This is an ongoing process.


“I believe we’re going about it in a thorough way, which admittedly depends upon the cooperation not only of our own deputies but also of . . . the criminal defense Bar.” To date, Hecht said, defense attorney groups have not offered any assistance in uncovering cases in which informants have testified, despite the office’s public request for help.

Defense Lawyers Not Cooperating

Charles Lindner, immediate past president of the Criminal Courts Bar Assn., said his group has not cooperated in the district attorney’s inquiry because he and many of his colleagues have come “to doubt the seriousness of their investigation.” Instead, defense lawyers have called for an independent investigation by a special counsel working with the Los Angeles County Grand Jury.

The use of jailhouse informants in criminal cases became a subject of controversy in October, after longtime informant Leslie Vernon White demonstrated to authorities that he could, through various ruses, collect enough information to fabricate the confession of a jail inmate he had never met.

White’s demonstration prompted the district attorney’s office to announce that it will review every case in the last decade in which one inmate testified that another had confessed in jail.

The district attorney’s inquiry began with a request from senior officials to the office’s 800 prosecutors to identify from memory the cases in which they had used informants. The initial results were made public Dec. 12, when the office distributed a list of 130 cases in which informants had been used.

Instead of relying on the memory of prosecutors, Gordon said, prosecutors should systematically examine each of the 390 cases tried in the county in the last 10 years in which the defendant faced death or life in prison to determine if informants were used.

The Los Angeles Criminal Courts Bar Assn., the group with which Gordon is affiliated, and the 2,100-member California Attorneys for Criminal Justice have asked the grand jury to empower a special counsel to look into the use of jailhouse informants by the district attorney’s office.

Gordon and other defense attorneys met Wednesday with Robert D. Leland, the grand jury foreman, but refused to disclose what they discussed. Leland had no comment on the session.

Questions Thoroughness

After the meeting, Gordon questioned the thoroughness of the district attorney’s review.

One case that prosecutors missed, Gordon said, involved Raynard P. Cummings, an ex-convict who was sentenced to death for the 1983 murder of a Los Angeles police officer during a routine traffic stop. Several jail inmates testified during Cummings’ trial that they had heard him brag about his role in the killing.

The omissions, Gordon said, “lead me to believe that . . . (former prosecutors now) outside the office either haven’t been asked (about their past use of informants) or haven’t returned information requests, for whatever reason.”

Hecht said his office on Wednesday mailed letters to 450 former prosecutors now in private practice requesting their help in identifying cases in which informants have testified. He said the office already had contacted 45 judges who once served as deputy district attorneys.