D.A. asks judge to review 1979 murder case; prosecutors failed to turn over evidence
After shooting a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who raided his parents’ house in 1979, Jesse Gonzales was in an ambulance with another deputy and apologized for the violence.
“Sorry, man,” he told the deputy, claiming he thought he was being ambushed by a rival gang when he shot at the plain-clothed deputies, killing one of them, according to court records.
That was Gonzales’ defense when his case went to trial. To disprove it, prosecutors relied on testimony from William Acker, a prolific jailhouse informant. Acker testified that Gonzales confessed to him that he had been tipped off about the raid and wanted to kill a cop.
Gonzales was convicted of first-degree murder, with a special circumstance finding that he had killed an on-duty law enforcement officer. He was sentenced to death.
But prosecutors at the time failed to disclose information to Gonzales’ defense team that would have damaged Acker’s credibility. And the case happened at a time when a massive jailhouse informant scandal was brewing and went on to throw many convictions into doubt.
Now, as part of his decades-long effort to challenge his conviction and death sentence, Gonzales has an unexpected ally: the L.A. County district attorney’s office. In a new filing Thursday, prosecutors are asking a judge to consider the merits of Gonzales’ claim as part of efforts that could result in a new trial.
“There’s no question that the defendant shot this officer,” said Shelan Joseph, a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office. “Should he be held accountable on first-degree murder or second-degree murder? Our opinion is that the information that was relied upon to seek and obtain the first-degree conviction was based on really incredible evidence.”
Mark Overland, an attorney who has represented Gonzales for 24 years, said the district attorney’s position now is where it should have been long ago, when the jail informant scandal came to light.
“They could’ve owned up to it,” he said in an interview. “What should have happened 40 years ago is happening now.”
Steve Cooley, who served as district attorney from 2000 to 2012 and is now representing the slain deputy’s family, said this case is an effort by Dist. Atty. George Gascón to overturn death penalty sentences.
“They want to get rid of every death penalty case that was ever achieved,” he said in an interview. He did not comment on the merits of the claim other than to say that the prosecutors who handled the case told him these allegations were already litigated. “This is all sorts of surprising to me that they’re revisiting it.”
The case dates back to May 1979, when sheriff’s deputies and narcotics officers from two local police departments served a warrant at the home in La Puente. They wore tank tops and T-shirts and drove unmarked police cars, according to the Thursday filing by the D.A.’s office. They announced themselves at the door and heard people moving inside.
Deputy Jack Williams told his partner, Deputy Robert Esquivel, to kick the door open. They entered about a minute after they arrived. That’s when Esquivel saw Gonzales braced against a wall, pointing a shotgun at him. Esquivel moved and Gonzales opened fire. The blast hit Williams in the chest, killing him.
Gonzales fled and Esquivel chased him, seeing the man turn the shotgun in his direction. Esquivel fired his revolver several times, wounding Gonzales.
A 6-year-old girl and Gonzales’ 2-month-old son were in a bedroom, the D.A.’s filing said. Deputies found drug paraphernalia in the home and a .22-caliber pistol, but no drugs.
As Gonzales was taken away on a gurney, several officers saw him raise his left fist and say “Viva Puente,” considered a salute to a local criminal street gang, the filing said.
At a hospital the next day, Gonzales told deputies that the shooting was a “freak accident” caused by mistaken identity, the Thursday filing said. He said he thought the house was being attacked by the Bassetts, a rival gang.
At one point while hospitalized, he told investigators that he was watering the lawn and ran inside when he saw “the cops” coming, according to the D.A.’s filing. When asked by the investigators to repeat what he did when he saw “the cops,” he claimed: “I didn’t say that. You must be confused,” the filing said.
Gonzales was in jail with Acker, who testified that Gonzales approached him with legal questions. At first, Acker said, he didn’t want to get involved. He testified that Gonzales confided in him that he had been tipped off to the raid and wanted to “bag a cop” to protect his home, because there was heroin inside. He said Gonzales planned to claim, or had claimed, that he thought the officers were Bassetts, the filing said.
Acker, who was waiting to be sentenced after pleading no contest to first-degree murder and robbery, said during cross examination that he voluntarily went to authorities with the confession information, according to the filing. He hoped his testimony would get him transferred to an out-of-state facility, where he’d be more safe. He denied that he was a police informant.
But in the filing Thursday, prosecutors said they reviewed six other cases in which Acker provided information to law enforcement — and the circumstances under which he got confessions were “strikingly similar” to Gonzales’ case. In each case, Acker was put in a cell with or next to an inmate under investigation at Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A. The conversations were never recorded.
One of those cases was dismissed after a preliminary hearing by Stephen Trott, a prosecutor at the time who has since become a judge, because Trott had lost faith in Acker’s credibility.
In a deposition years later, Trott described Acker as a “classic psychopath” and “a monster,” the filing said. He concluded Acker’s testimony was “absolutely insufficient on which to predicate a prosecution and certainly nothing that a jury ever should rely on if that’s all there was to convict” in the case he dismissed.
He also said jailhouse informants know that the best way to get out is to “come up with evidence against somebody else and use it as a way to bargain out.”
In the recent filing, prosecutors say that their counterparts in the district attorney’s office in the 1980s failed to turn over psychological reports that described Acker as having “a history of lying and manipulative behavior” and “severe personality disorder.” The filing said he faked three suicide attempts to obtain transfers to other prison facilities.
Acker testified in Gonzales’ trial — during the guilt phase and during both of the two penalty phases in 1980 and 1981. The first penalty phase trial resulted in a hung jury. In the second one, the jury sentenced him to death.
Before Acker testified in 1980, the district attorney’s office requested an out-of-state transfer for him. Acker, the prosecutor wrote, “has been of assistance in supplying information on the killing of a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff. As a result of this cooperation his life has been threatened.”
The prosecutor mentioned Gonzales’ prison gang ties and said he was concerned for Acker’s “safety if he is incarcerated in California state prison.”
A grand jury investigation years later found that the district attorney’s office “tolerated suspected perjury by jailhouse informants as a way to win murder cases.”
In the recent filing, prosecutors said they do not know if the grand jury specifically reviewed cases in which Acker testified, but “its conclusions are consistent with the circumstances” surrounding his testimony in Gonzales’ case.
The scandal resulted in reforms that restricted the use of jailhouse informants.
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