CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / ATTORNEY GENERAL : For Smith, ‘Informants’ Issue Has a Double Edge
Vowing to “end the abuses of jailhouse informants” if elected state attorney general, San Francisco Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith on Monday criticized his Los Angeles counterpart, Ira Reiner, for soliciting courtroom testimony from unreliable informants.
“He’s using them to enhance his conviction rate,” Smith said of Reiner, his opponent in next Tuesday’s state Democratic primary. “He has no concern about victims.”
However, Smith’s claim at a Long Beach press conference that his own office has not called any jailhouse informants to the witness stand for at least six years was questioned later by the San Francisco public defender’s office.
“I don’t think that’s true,” said Public Defender Jeff Brown. “If the situation is right, certainly they’ll use them.”
Indeed, The Times has learned that Smith’s office used testimony in a 1988 murder case from an informant who had also given testimony in previous Los Angeles cases. Moreover, the credibility of the informant, Lawrence Wilson, had been publicly discredited six years earlier by the state parole board after he made dubious claims at a parole hearing for Sirhan Sirhan.
Questions about the improper use of jailhouse informants in Los Angeles first came to light in 1988 when longtime informer Leslie White demonstrated for jailers that he could gather enough information to convincingly fake a murder confession of another inmate whom he had never met. Informants, who are usually hardened criminals, generally hope that prosecutors will repay them for whatever information they provide by writing letters detailing their testimony to the state parole board. Although the letters usually make no recommendations, top prosecutors acknowledge that they can help expedite a convict’s release.
Throughout the attorney general’s race, Smith--who is neck and neck with Reiner in the polls--has attacked the Los Angeles prosecutor for his alleged misuse of jailhouse informants.
On Monday, Smith spoke to reporters outside a grimy North Long Beach apartment house in which apartment manager Victor Pilon, 75, was killed in 1987 by Ronald Hoag, a former Los Angeles jailhouse informant.
Smith charged that Hoag, who was sentenced to 60 years for killing Pilon, would have been behind bars at the time of the murder if not for a letter from the Los Angeles district attorney’s office to the Board of Prison Terms.
Pilon “was a victim of Reiner’s jailhouse informant program,” Smith said.
According to prosecution reports, a letter was sent by Reiner’s office to the Board of Prison Terms concerning Hoag’s testimony in the 1986 preliminary hearing of a fellow inmate, Stephen Vulpis. Vulpis was eventually convicted of strangling a Studio City businesswoman.
The Pilon murder occurred in September, 1987--almost a year after Hoag was first paroled, returned to prison on parole violations, then released again, according to published reports.
Reiner’s campaign manager, Sam Singer, said he had no information available Monday to comment on the Hoag case. As for the general use of jailhouse snitches, Singer said:
“Yes, there was an abuse of the jailhouse informants system in Los Angeles County. . . . But Ira Reiner did take action when it was discovered.”
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office used testimony from jailhouse informants in an estimated 150 to 200 cases during the decade before the scandal broke in late 1988. Reiner, who was elected district attorney in 1984, reacted by ordering a review of all past snitch cases and by supporting state legislation to limit the use of informants. Smith said he had also supported that legislation.
At his press conference, Smith said that if elected attorney general he would work for passage of additional state laws to restrict the use of informants further.
Later, Smith told The Times that he had no knowledge of his office’s use of Wilson in a 1988 pretrial hearing in the murder case of Robert Lee Massie. His prosecutor in the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Eugene Sweeters, termed Wilson’s testimony “insignificant,” and claimed he was never aware of Wilson’s dubious background.
According to court records, Wilson was called to the witness stand by Sweeters after writing to Smith’s office to say that he had heard Massie confess to an earlier killing. The pretrial hearing was held to help determine whether Massie could receive the death penalty if convicted of the more recent murder charge.
Massie eventually was convicted and sentenced to death. Wilson did not testify at Massie’s trial.
Six years earlier, Wilson had received significant press attention when he claimed that the assassin of Robert F. Kennedy had once told him that, if paroled, he planned to kill Kennedy’s brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Wilson’s credibility was demolished at Sirhan’s parole hearing when the board’s chief investigator revealed a series of incidents he said showed “the pattern of deceit Wilson has employed to gain his ends.”
Before the Sirhan hearing, Wilson also testified in a Los Angeles murder case. When the snitch scandal broke, his testimony--along with those of dozens of informants in almost 200 cases--was ordered by Reiner to be reviewed.
In a memo dated Nov. 2, 1988, a Los Angeles prosecutor acknowledged that Wilson was “a notorious prison informant.” Coincidentally, that was the same day that Wilson was testifying in San Francisco in the Massie case.
Massie’s lawyer, Robert R. Bryan, maintains that Sweeters had ample knowledge of Wilson’s tainted past before calling him to the stand.
“This guy was a real flake and they knew that,” Bryan said.