Sorting Out Snitches

The unfolding scandal over the Los Angeles County district attorney's alleged misuse of jailhouse informants raises deeply disturbing questions about the operation of the criminal-justice system. When they are found, the answers to those questions may be more disturbing yet.

But the questions have to be asked, and the answers must be found.

The scandal began last October, when Leslie Vernon White--a jailhouse snitch for whom prosecutors had done numerous favors in return for his testimony in numerous cases--demonstrated his ability to fabricate confessions by other inmates whom he never even had met. White later said that he had lied on behalf of the prosecution in several cases. Defense attorneys and prosecutors subsequently have discovered more than 200 felony cases in which White and other such informants have testified over the past decade.

Unpleasant questions arise from these unsavory facts: Have innocent people been convicted by lies? Have individual prosecutors turned a blind eye to perjury or been less than diligent in seeing that it did not occur? What role has the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail, played in creating opportunities for the snitches to ply their shabby trade? What role have members of other law-enforcement agencies had in encouraging the creation of such opportunities?

Both the defense Bar and the district attorney's office believe that answering these questions will require a grand-jury investigation. But to undertake such a probe the jury requires its own special counsel. This role cannot be filled by the state attorney general's office, which itself uses jailhouse informants in its prosecutions, or by the county counsel's office, which must act on behalf of the county or the Sheriff's Department in any civil actions arising from this scandal.

Therefore, we say again what we have said before: The grand jury should ask the presiding judge of the Superior Court, Richard P. Byrne, to appoint a distinguished, disinterested member of the Bar as its special counsel. And it should do so quickly.

In this case justice deferred is not yet justice denied, but it is justice under a cloud.

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