Appeals court overturns murder convictions of alleged L.A. serial killer
A federal appeals court Tuesday overturned the 1984 murder convictions of an alleged serial killer dubbed the “Skid Row Stabber,” calling the government’s chief witness an “infamous” jailhouse informant and a habitual liar.
Bobby Joe Maxwell, who has spent more than 30 years behind bars, should be given a new trial or set free, the court ruled. Maxwell was convicted of two of 10 murders attributed to the Skid Row Stabber in 1978 and 1979.
The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Sidney Storch, one of a notorious cadre of snitches used by Los Angeles authorities in dozens of murder cases in the 1970s and ‘80s. At Maxwell’s trial, Storch told jurors that the defendant had confessed to the killings when they shared a cell in Los Angeles County Jail.
Storch, a career criminal, testified for the prosecution in at least half a dozen trials and received reduced sentences and other considerations for helping secure convictions. He was said by other jailhouse snitches to have taught them the art of “booking” fellow inmates in exchange for lighter sentences and other favors.
“Storch perjured himself multiple times at Maxwell’s trial and employed a signature method to ‘book’ fellow inmates,” a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said in ordering a new trial. “Storch also had a chronic pattern of dishonesty that both predated and followed Maxwell’s trial.”
Maxwell, 60, has spent more than half his life behind bars since his 1979 arrest in connection with the downtown killings. Cast by the prosecution as a Satan worshipper who killed to deliver souls to the devil, Maxwell was charged with 10 murders. But his jury acquitted him of three and deadlocked over the other five. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Maxwell’s many appeals were denied until the California Supreme Court ordered Los Angeles County Superior Court to review whether Storch had given false testimony. After a two-year evidentiary hearing, the court acknowledged that Storch had become “an established liar” but said that he had given reliable testimony in Maxwell’s case.
The 9th Circuit panel, composed of appointees of Presidents Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush, unanimously disagreed. The judges said Storch had “a long and public history of dishonesty,” and reliance on his testimony undermined confidence that Maxwell had a fair trial.
Aside from Storch’s claim to have heard Maxwell’s confession to each of the 10 killings, the conviction was based on evidence of a palm print on a skid row bench that matched Maxwell’s and a Bic lighter that jurors were told had been taken from one of the victims.
Three homeless men who had seen the man who stabbed one of the victims testified that the killer was a large black man with a Spanish or Caribbean accent, and that he had introduced himself as “Luther.” None of the three had been able to identify Maxwell in a police lineup.
The appeals panel said it was unreasonable for the trial court to believe that Storch testified truthfully, given his reputation and involvement in numerous cases in which his testimony proved to be untrue. Storch was subpoenaed by a grand jury in 1988 as part of a federal probe of informant abuse but died in a New York jail before he could testify, the appeals court noted.
A new trial is in order, the judges said, because Storch was the “make-or-break witness,” his testimony was the centerpiece of the government’s case, and nearly all other evidence against Maxwell was circumstantial.
Supreme Court precedent requires prosecutors to disclose any benefits that are given to a government informant, the appeals panel noted. The trial court wasn’t informed about the considerations granted Storch for aiding in Maxwell’s conviction.
“Evidence that Storch had already secured a plea agreement and came forward to testify at Maxwell’s trial for the sole purpose of working a new and better deal would have directly impeached Storch’s testimony for why he came forward,” the court said.
Maxwell’s attorney, Verna Wefald, got the news of his reprieve after landing from a cross-country flight Tuesday night and expressed both relief and the need to be patient.
“We still have a ways to go,” the Pasadena lawyer said of the potential for the state to appeal the 9th Circuit ruling to a larger panel of appellate judges or to the U.S. Supreme Court. “But it’s been a long time coming.”
Wefald said she arrived in Los Angeles too late to call Maxwell at the California State Prison at Lancaster and wasn’t sure if he knew about the ruling that could eventually set him free.
The office of Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown had no comment on the ruling, spokesman Jim Finefrock said.