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Pledge by State to Aid Jury in Jail Informant Probe Is Told

Times Staff Writer

The California attorney general’s office has agreed to appoint a special counsel to advise the Los Angeles County Grand Jury in an investigation into the use of jailhouse informants, two judges and a grand jury source familiar with the pledge said Monday.

The attorney general’s agreement was made in a letter to the grand jury earlier this month, the sources said, and was conditioned upon the Los Angeles County counsel’s office declining to provide an attorney to advise the grand jury in a probe.

On Monday, that condition was met when the county counsel’s office declined the request.

Next Steps Unclear

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The attorney general’s office would make no comment, and there was no indication Monday of who the special counsel might be or when he might be named.

County Counsel DeWitt Clinton, in describing his rejection of the grand jury request, said, “I don’t think I have any legal authority to conduct an investigation . . . of a matter that has criminal overtones.”

Clinton said his office represents county departments in civil litigation and lacks expertise in criminal law. “We’re not criminal lawyers,” he said.

A grand jury source, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, said the panel on Monday was drafting a letter to the attorney general’s office asking that it make good on its promise to appoint a special counsel.

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Alan Ashby, chief public information officer for the attorney general’s office, declined to comment, even to confirm that the attorney general’s office had made an agreement, saying, “We are not confirming or denying the contents of any communications from us.”

Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp also declined to comment through a spokesman.

However, the two judges and the grand jury source said the attorney general had agreed to make an appointment in a letter to the grand jury.

Richard P. Byrne, presiding judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, said, “I believe the attorney general has said they would (appoint a special counsel).”

Response to Requests

Byrne said he had obtained his information from David Horowitz, who as supervising judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court for criminal matters, supervises the grand jury’s work. Horowitz confirmed that the attorney general’s office had said it would appoint a special counsel.

In seeking an attorney to guide a probe into the use of informants, the grand jury is responding to a request made since December by two leading defense lawyer organizations, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Bar Assn., who were joined recently by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.

These groups requested the inquiry after disclosure that a longtime jailhouse informant, Leslie Vernon White, demonstrated that he could gather enough information to fabricate the murder confession of a defendant he had never met.

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The demonstration called into question the district attorney’s use of jailhouse informants, who have testified in more than 140 cases, most of them involving murders, in the last decade. Typically, these informants have traded confessions they claim they obtained in jail for leniency in their own cases.

Although White stopped short of saying he had committed perjury, he said that other informants have falsified confessions.

A Matter of Confidence

In a surprise move in January, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office joined the request for a grand jury probe, saying it was desirable to maintain public confidence in the justice system.

Normally, the district attorney’s office advises the grand jury. However, in this case, the district attorney’s office, whose prosecutors could be the subject of a probe, had a potential conflict of interest.

In search of a lawyer, the grand jury wrote the attorney general’s office in January, asking it to act as legal adviser or to appoint a special counsel. But the attorney general’s office declined, suggesting instead that the problem was local and that the grand jury should approach the county counsel’s office.

The grand jury then wrote the attorney general’s office again, explaining that it did not want to ask the county counsel’s office because it perceived that the county counsel had a potential conflict of interest too.

Then the attorney general’s office wrote the grand jury again, urging it to approach the county counsel’s office and agreeing to appoint a special counsel if the county counsel’s office declined to become involved, Horowitz said.

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Times staff writer Robert W. Stewart contributed to this article.


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