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Jail 'Snitches' as Witnesses: Credibility is Key Question

June 09, 1985|JERRY HICKS | Times Staff Writer

Alcala's conviction was reversed last August by the state Supreme Court on a technicality unrelated to the informants' testimony. In fact, the high court cited Herrera's testimony as important evidence that Alcala had kidnaped the girl. When Alcala is retried, Herrera is expected to be a main prosecution witness.

Jurors sometimes trust jail informants more than they realize.

Two months ago, a jury was deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of convicting Michael Garritson, of Fullerton, of second-degree murder in a child's death. The deadlock resulted in a hung jury; a second trial is pending.

In the trial, the prosecution used two jail informants and the defense used one. Jurors said they didn't believe any of the informants, but in later conversations, some jurors who voted for conviction indicated that some of the damaging testimony from one of the prosecution informants had been a factor.

Prosecutors understand defense attorneys' frustrations over jail informants, but Deputy Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who has used informants in several cases, is critical of those critics:

"Defense lawyers often see informants as disloyal to their fellow inmates, but that's like saying we are supposed to accept the code of ethics that exists in the jail," Rackauckas said.

Prosecutors say they turn down more informants than they use. And prosecutors all insist that they follow one hard and fast rule: "We never put anyone on the witness stand we don't believe is telling the truth," Enright said.

A test, prosecutors say, is whether the informant knows things about the crime that were never printed in a newspaper, or that only the defendant would have known.

But many defense attorneys say such information often circulates around the jail. Defendants often keep copies of police reports about their cases. Defense attorneys say it is common for other inmates to steal the reports or peruse them while the defendant is away from his cell.

One former Orange County Jail inmate, George Sidebottom, said copies of police reports circulate through the jail like old magazines.

Sidebottom at first was an informant against Walter Black, of Orange, in a 1982 child killing. But he told Superior Court Judge Robert H. Green in a hearing that he and three other informants had fabricated their stories. Black was later convicted of second-degree murder, but no informants testified at the trial.

Sidebottom, who was serving two years for attempted manslaughter, said he agreed to lie and say Black confessed to him because a police officer "promised me the moon on my case."

Attorney Keith Monroe, representing Alcala, insists that an informant's incentive to lie "is overwhelming."

"In every case, you can bet there's a payoff down the road," Monroe said.

What bothers most defense attorneys is that jurors are always told no deals were made between prosecutor and informant, yet deals seem to materialize after a case.

How Deals Materialize

Fred McBride, a Santa Ana defense attorney who has represented informants, said it usually works like this: "The prosecutor says he won't give us a deal, but he winks. He doesn't really wink, but he winks. So you go back to your client and say, 'I can't get you a deal, but based on my experience, I can tell you I think they'll give you a break.' "

Prosecutors do not deny that they have to make such subtle bargains, but prosecutor Rackauckas objects to the implication that anything insidious takes place.

"Let's say a drug user testifies against a murderer," Rackauckas explained. "Right away, he's labeled a snitch within the jail, which puts his life in danger. He's put in what amounts to solitary confinement. He's testifying in the face of tremendous criticism from defense attorneys. He has taken a hell of a chance for us.

"It's only natural that a judge is going to take that into consideration when his case comes up. And it's only natural that the prosecutor he's just helped is going to be in his corner."

Ed Freeman, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Wisely in the death of his trucker stepfather, argues that in many cases informants want to testify because they are shocked by the information they have heard or because they have undergone a religious conversion. Defense lawyers, however, say they doubt that this happens often.

Whatever their motives, the supply of informants is not drying up.

In a recent murder case, Bower said, 14 jail inmates told authorities that Bower's client confessed to them. And a well-known defense attorney, who requested anonymity, said a client in a Riverside murder case was in the Orange County Jail for a brief time, yet four inmates are named as potential informants.

Most Used Informant

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