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  California State Blue Ribbon Panel Says the Legislature Should
  Enact Laws Requiring Corroborating Evidence If Such Testimony 
  Is Offered.


                  Return To OnlinePot’s Legal Section Main Page       

                          Pubdate: Wed, 22 Nov 2006
                        Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)

The state Legislature should limit the use of testimony by jailhouse 
informants in criminal trials, according to the latest report issued 
by a blue ribbon commission examining problems of wrongful 
convictions in California.

The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice said 
lawmakers should enact a statute barring convictions based on the 
testimony of an in-custody informant, unless the account is 
corroborated by independent evidence.

Similar corroboration should also be required for jailhouse informant 
testimony presented in the penalty phase of a capital murder case, 
according to the 20-member commission, which is chaired by former 
California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp.

The recommended controls, if adopted, would parallel current state 
law mandating corroboration if testimony by a defendant’s accomplices 
is to be introduced.

Jailhouse informants have been implicated in a number of wrongful 
convictions, including 46% of those reviewed in a study by professors 
at Northwestern University Law School, the report noted. Critics say 
it is all too easy for informants to gather information about their 
fellow inmates’ charges and fabricate testimony to persuade 
prosecutors to offer them leniency on their cases.

Of the 117 death penalty appeals pending in the state public 
defender’s office, 17 featured testimony by in-custody informants and 
six included testimony by informants out on bail or otherwise in 
"constructive custody."

Consequently, the commission said "confidence in the reliability of 
testimony of arrested or charged informant witnesses is a matter of 
continuing concern to ensure that the administration of justice in 
California is just, fair and accurate."

In addition, the commission recommended that "whenever feasible, 
express agreements in writing should describe the range of 
recommended rewards or benefits that might be afforded in exchange 
for trustful testimony by an arrested or charged informant."

At a hearing in late September, John Spillane, the chief deputy 
district attorney in Los Angeles County, and Gigi Gordon, director of 
the Post Conviction Assistance Center in Los Angeles, said that the 
Los Angeles County district attorney’s office had dramatically 
reduced its use of jailhouse informants in the wake of a massive 
scandal in the late 1980s.

After informant Leslie Vernon White told reporters how easy it was to 
concoct testimony and get a break in his cases, a special grand jury 
was convened in Los Angeles and took testimony from 120 witnesses, 
including six self-professed jailhouse informants.

The grand jury issued a report stating that the district attorney’s 
office had "failed to fulfill the ethical responsibilities required 
of a public prosecutor" in its use of jailhouse informants.

In the scandal’s aftermath, the district attorney’s office adopted 
policy guidelines "to strictly control the use of jailhouse 
informants as witnesses," the commission report noted. The policy 
requires "strong corroborative evidence," consisting of more than the 
informant’s apparent familiarity with details of the crime thought to 
be known only to law enforcement.

The office also maintains a central index of jailhouse informants who 
have offered to be or who have been used as witnesses, Spillane told 
the commission in September.

Spillane said that no jailhouse informant testimony had been approved 
in Los Angeles County in the last 20 months, and on only 12 occasions 
in the last four years.

However, the commission indicated in the report issued late Monday 
that the picture was far from clear in other parts of the state.

Only nine of 58 district attorney’s offices in the state responded to 
inquiries from the commission about their practices on jailhouse informants.

"I am shocked that years after the Los Angeles informant scandal 
demonstrated the problems with informant testimony, only nine 
district attorney offices in the state have written policies 
addressing the issue," Natasha Minsker, an attorney for the American 
Civil Liberties Union of Northern California who testified at the 
September hearing, said Tuesday.

Four other large counties — Orange, San Bernardino, Santa Clara and 
Ventura — have adopted written policies similar to Los Angeles’, and 
all restrict use of jailhouse informants. But according to the 
report, only the Orange and Santa Clara county district attorneys 
offices have a policy that requires maintaining a central file of all 
data about informants.

Other commission recommendations for district attorney’s offices 
across the state include:

. Adopt a written policy requiring a supervisor’s approval for using 
in-custody informant testimony.

. Maintain a central file preserving all records on in-custody informants.

. Record all interviews with in-custody informants.

The commission’s recommendations were unanimously approved, said 
Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen, the commission’s 
executive director.

In addition to Van de Kamp, the members include California Atty. Gen. 
Bill Lockyer, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, Los Angeles Police 
Chief William J. Bratton, three district attorneys, three public 
defenders, the attorney who heads the state’s habeas corpus resource 
center, two attorneys in private practice, two law professors, a 
former judge, a rabbi and a real estate developer. 

Newshawk: http://www.november.org/stayinfo/Calendar.html
Pubdate: Wed, 22 Nov 2006
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2006 Los Angeles Times
Contact: letters@latimes.com
Website: http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/front/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/248
Author: Henry Weinstein, Times Staff Writer
Note: The report and recommendations are on line at 
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/find?247 (Crime Policy – United States)
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/corrupt.htm (Corruption – United States)
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/topics/informants
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/topics/snitches