November 24, 2013

Sidebar: California case prompts policy reforms

Leslie Vernon White, a well-known snitch and a charming, gifted liar, changed the way in which Los Angeles County uses criminal informants, potentially providing a national model.

In the late 1980s, the Los Angeles Times began reporting on jailhouse informants whose lies corroded the justice system in Los Angeles County. The series featured White, who testified in at least a dozen major cases. He was part of a group of informants whose fabricated testimonies helped land 30 people on death row.

White’s lies earned him various benefits, including a letter from a high-ranking official in the county District Attorney’s Office, which recommended that White be paroled.

Later, White used a jail telephone to pose as a bail bondsman, police officer and prosecutor in order to demonstrate for officials the ease with which he could obtain sensitive information about fellow inmates in order to fabricate murder confessions.

His revelations prompted a mass review of cases spanning an entire decade in which jailhouse testimony had been used to secure a criminal conviction. And it led Los Angeles County to adopt what Alexandra Natapoff, a nationally recognized expert on the use of criminal informants, calls some “of the best jailhouse snitch protections in the country.”

A deputy wishing to use a jailhouse informant as a prosecution witness, the policy states, must obtain prior approval from a Jailhouse Informant Committee. The written request must include a brief description of the corroborating evidence, criminal history of the informant and a disclosure of any incentives offered for the testimony.

Additionally, the policy generally prohibits monetary compensation in excess of $50 and calls for a central index of all informants who have given, or offered to give testimony, in past cases.

Natapoff says such procedural protections should be widely in place. But she knows that reforms face opposition, because prosecutors and police “want unfettered authority and discretion, and efforts at transparency threaten this authority.”

Natapoff argues that the additional safeguards are needed to prevent “the blot on the justice system” that comes from locking up innocent people.

“The calculus has to include the terrible cost of wrongful convictions,” she says.