Jail Informant Owns Up to Perjury in a Dozen Cases
The jailhouse informant who started a scandal more than a year ago by demonstrating the ease with which he could fake an inmate’s confession now says he committed perjury in a dozen cases, most involving major felonies.
The informant, Leslie Vernon White, laid out details of his perjuries for the first time in an interview with The Times.
“I’m just basically going to tell the truth and if the D.A. wants to bury me now for telling the truth after rewarding me for all my lies for so many years, so be it,” White said in the interview, which took place recently in a visiting room at the Los Angeles Hall of Justice jail.
White’s testimony appears to have been crucial to convictions in, at most, three of the cases, according to a brief examination of them by The Times.
However, the secondary nature of his testimony in the other cases raises questions about why some prosecutors felt it was necessary to use him--and ultimately to give him leniency for his own crimes in return for his cooperation.
The case review also raises questions about whether some prosecutors did a proper job of corroborating White’s stories before they put him on the witness stand.
White, a 32-year-old convicted robber, kidnaper and drug abuser, is currently serving a nearly six-year sentence for purse snatching and failure to appear in court. The extraordinarily long sentence for those crimes was imposed after he stopped cooperating with law enforcement. He is being housed at the Hall of Justice jail rather than in a state prison for the convenience of the Los Angeles County Grand Jury, which is using him as a witness in its investigation of possible misuse of jailhouse informants by law enforcement officials.
In the interview, White mentioned two reasons for coming forward now, after having repeatedly refused for more than a year to identify the cases in which he perjured himself.
Although he said he is concerned that the Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County district attorneys may file perjury charges against him, White said, “I don’t think the grand jury investigation can be completely done unless I cooperate all the way.”
He also said he was tired of having to dance around the question of which cases he lied in while testifying as an expert witness on informants--a pursuit he regards as his “business.”
Testifies as Expert
Since the scandal broke, White has been hired by defense attorneys and paid an average of $500 in about half a dozen cases around the state to testify as an expert on the ways informants make up confessions.
But White said he has been repeatedly “boxed in” by prosecutors on cross-examination when “they say, ‘How can you now tell us as an expert that all informants lie when you told us that you told the truth in (your) cases?’ ”
In his appearances as an expert, White has gradually admitted committing perjury, but has refused to provide details.
White’s admissions to The Times follow admissions by another longtime Los Angeles informant, Stephen Jesse Cisneros, who told the newspaper recently that he committed perjury by faking confessions in five murder cases.
White, who said he began faking confessions in 1977, broke the informant scandal in late 1988 when he demonstrated for his jailers an elaborate ruse he said he had seen other informants use to fake convincing confessions of inmates they had never met.
In his demonstration, White used a telephone in the jail and posed as a policeman to gather inside information about a murder from law enforcement agencies, then arranged a phony record to show that he had briefly shared a cell with the inmate whose confession he claimed to have heard.
The demonstration triggered the ongoing grand jury probe, led to a vast reduction in the use of informants by county prosecutors and prompted a new state law requiring that jurors be told to view informants’ testimony with suspicion.
In addition, defense lawyers have challenged about a dozen Los Angeles County convictions obtained with informant testimony. One of these convictions, for murder, has been overturned.
In the interview, White related that he usually relied on much simpler techniques than the telephone ruse to frame inmates. He said often he merely asked a cellmate what he was charged with. When the cellmate responded with a protestation of innocence and an account of what the police said happened, White said he simply turned the information around and claimed that the cellmate had confessed.
The three cases in which White’s testimony may have been crucial involved faked confessions to a burglary, an attempted murder and a murder.
In the burglary case, White said, he framed Lewis Egan, with whom he shared the back seat of a Burbank squad car in 1986. White claimed and later testified at a preliminary hearing that Egan confessed to burglarizing a home and stealing jewelry and some checks. Without White, prosecutors could show only that Egan possessed a check stolen during the burglary and had access to the jewelry--evidence of the lesser crime of receiving stolen property.
But with the threat of White’s testimony hanging over his head, Egan, who had had no run-ins with the police for 10 years, pleaded no contest to the burglary charge without acknowledging his guilt, in return for a sentence bargain of six months in jail.
In an interview, White said of Egan: “He told me . . . that the cops said he did this. . . . He never admitted nothing to me.”
In the attempted murder case, White said he framed cellmate Michael James Moore, who was accused of wounding a police officer and paralyzing a neighbor in 1982. There was plenty of evidence in the form of eyewitness testimony that it was Moore who had done the shootings. But Moore pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
White’s testimony was that Moore had told him in their cell that he was faking insanity. The jury found Moore sane, and he was sentenced to prison for about 19 years.
White now says it was he who was faking.
An appellate court later ruled that Moore was entitled to a new trial on the sanity issue because the judge had given the jury faulty instructions, but Moore chose not to repeat the sanity phase of his trial, opting instead to serve his time in prison, a district attorney’s spokesman said.
In the murder case, White said, he used the telephone ruse to fake a confession by Kevin Dykes in 1986. Dykes was charged with the stabbing death of a friend only after other jailhouse informants said he confessed.
Dykes’ defense attorney and the trial prosecutor said that the testimony of White and the other informants was critical to the conviction. But the prosecutor assigned to review the case in the wake of the informant scandal disagreed, along with the trial judge. Dykes is serving a prison term of 29 years to life.
Law enforcement authorities maintain that they have long used minimal safeguards in an effort to prevent faked confessions, by requiring that an informant’s testimony be corroborated in some fashion.
Traditionally, authorities have considered an informant’s account to be corroborated if he reported facts about the crime that should have been been known only by the criminal and the police.
However, White’s experience shows that even this minimal standard was sometimes ignored.
In a murder case in which no corroboration for White’s story was apparent, according to court records and police reports, White said he gave the police a false statement that Robert Vernon Wilbarn had confessed.
White said he met Wilbarn in jail in 1986 and asked him, ‘What are you here for?’ ” He said Wilbarn responded: “ ‘They’re trying to say I shot one of my homeboys. . . . So I told LAPD and the D.A. . . . that . . . he told me, ‘I killed my homeboy.’ ”
White said he also made up a story that Wilbarn had threatened a detective’s life because “when you’re trying to sell a case to the cops or D.A., it’s always good to say, ‘Hey, the guy told me he was going to get a witness killed; he was going to get a cop killed.’ I mean, they’ll automatically use you then.”
With that information, White became the prosecution’s star witness at the suspect’s preliminary hearing, court records show. But a magistrate found White’s testimony unbelievable and the district attorney’s office reacted by dismissing the murder case.
White said he was at his most unbelievable when he claimed that two Punjabis, Ashok and Narinder Kumar, confessed to him on a jail bus en route to court that they had committed insurance fraud by burning down their jewelry business in Artesia.
White said one of the Kumars “barely” spoke English. Asked what language they spoke, White replied: “I have no idea. It was nothing close to mine.”
White nonetheless testified against them at their preliminary hearing in 1987 while Punjabi interpreters translated his remarks.
He said in the interview that one of the Kumars had explained on the bus what they were charged with and that he simply used that information to fabricate a confession.
White was not called to testify at the Kumars’ trial, however, and they were convicted on the basis of other evidence.
White also said he faked confessions in two San Bernardino County cases. One resulted in a conviction for child stealing for Daniel James Waters in 1983. In the other, a man whom White identified but whose court file The Times has been unable to locate, was charged with “kidnap, attempted rape, stuff like that” in 1984, White said.
White said in both cases his “was creative testimony, put it like that.”
In two other cases in San Bernardino, White still says, he told the truth. One resulted in a murder conviction of Robert Griffin, a reputed leader of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, for ordering the killing of another prison inmate. White said he produced “a handwritten note” from Griffin linking him to the inmate’s death.
In the other case, he said, two men--John Robert Swisher and Daniel Joseph Lang--confessed to a murder in Hollywood while sharing a cellblock with White in the Barstow Jail in late 1982.
“In Swisher and Lang,” White said in the interview, pausing for 10 seconds, “that was a true case.”
White testified against them at a preliminary hearing, and they pleaded guilty to second-degree murder to avoid trial.
Although White customarily testified for the prosecution in his role as an informant, he said that he twice testified for the defense, and still managed to lie for the prosecution.
Bonin Murder Trial
In 1981, he caused a stir as a defense witness in the mass murder trial of William Bonin, who was subsequently convicted of a series of homosexual torture-slayings. At the trial, he testified that the prosecution’s key jailhouse informant against Bonin had confided to him that he was lying.
Moments later, under questioning by a prosecutor, White claimed that the informant had made no such admission, and that Bonin had paid him to say that he had. Now, White said, he “lied all the way through this thing.”
In 1987, he pulled a similar maneuver after testifying for the defense about the way informants operate. The occasion was a bail review hearing for David Wayne Sconce, who was awaiting trial on a variety of charges including illegally selling body parts from his funeral business in Pasadena. White now says he lied when he testified that he had heard that Sconce was plotting to kill the prosecutor.
White said he faked his first confession in 1977, drawing his information from the transcript of his target’s pretrial hearing.
White said he shared a cell with the target’s co-defendant, who gave him the idea and the transcript. The co-defendant had already agreed to testify for the prosecution in return for being placed on probation for assault with a deadly weapon.
The target, Steven Eric White, no relation, was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to prison. But Leslie White’s trial testimony appears not to have been crucial in the conviction. A review of available records indicated that there was eyewitness testimony.
White said his latest faked testimony occurred in two related cases in 1988. In one, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office was relying on jailhouse informant testimony in its fourth unsuccessful bid to convict Harles Hamilton of the murder of a prominent Altadena couple. White testified for the defense that the key prosecution informant had admitted to him that he was lying.
White now says he lied about this alleged admission “for personal reasons.” Then, White said, he lied as a prosecution witness before a grand jury that indicted Hamilton’s lawyer on a charge of soliciting White to commit perjury in the Hamilton case. The lawyer, Rayford Fountain, has pleaded innocent and is awaiting trial.
Times researcher Tracy Thomas contributed to this story.
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