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Jail 'Snitches' as Witnesses: Credibility is Key Question

June 09, 1985|JERRY HICKS | Times Staff Writer

The murder case against William Lee Evins, accused of bludgeoning a Fountain Valley woman, was all but destroyed two years ago when an appellate court decision eliminated a key witness.

But along came James Dean Cochrum, 24, a cell mate of Evins in Orange County Jail. Cochrum became the prosecution's star witness when he testified at a preliminary hearing that Evins, 31, had confessed the murder to him.

Then there was the case of two Bellflower men charged with murder in the kidnap-slaying of a Rossmoor woman. Cochrum told prosecutors he overheard them confessing the crime, according to court records.

Court records in a pending murder case show that a jail informant told authorities he overheard Adolpho Aguirre, of Anaheim, confess to committing a murder. The informant: Cochrum again.

In still another case, court records show that Cochrum told district attorney's investigators that in a jail conversation Elliott Beal, of Costa Mesa, provided incriminating details about how he had killed his wife. For Cochrum, it was the fifth time he had informed on an Orange County Jail inmate.

Defense lawyers in Orange County say Cochrum is the most prolific jail informant that they have ever seen. But he is not the only one.

The Orange County Jail places a continuing flow of inmates in protective custody because they are potential witnesses against fellow inmates. In the last five years, jail informants have testified in more than a hundred major Orange County cases.

Jail inmates call them "snitches."

Defense lawyers detest them. Prosecutors say that jail informants can be just as legitimate as other kinds of witnesses.

"One thing I've learned in this business: Inmates love to talk about their crimes," said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James Enright. "If we think an informant is telling the truth, and we can corroborate what he says, you bet we'll use him."

Nobody denies that informants usually want help in their own cases in exchange for their testimony. But prosecutors insist that an informant's selfish motive does not mean that he is lying.

Most defense lawyers, however, agree with Santa Ana attorney Ronald Brower, who said, "Jail informants are a nightmare."

Brower said that jurors often believe jail informants without question because "they tend to have faith that the district attorney's office wouldn't put on anybody who would lie."

Yet most informants, Brower and others say, have lengthy records of crime and histories of lying.

"What's frustrating is that any time it's a close case, you know that the prosecutor is going to come up with a snitch," said defense attorney Jennifer Keller, of Irvine.

Attorney Ronald Kreber, of Newport Beach, blames defense attorneys--himself included--for not pushing judges harder to keep jail informants off the witness stand.

Only one Superior Court judge, Francisco Briseno, has refused to let a jail informant testify in recent years. That was three years ago in a murder trial, when Briseno decided the informant lacked credibility. But most judges accept the prosecution argument that credibility questions should be up to the jury.

Can Make a Difference

There is no doubt that jail informants can make a difference.

For example, prosecutors were convinced three years ago that 19-year-old F-Troop gang member Johnny Salmon had been the triggerman in a Santa Ana killing for which two accomplices had been convicted.

Salmon, in jail for another crime, allegedly boasted to cell mates that he was the triggerman. A minor drug offender in the cell told his attorney and the attorney called the district attorney's office. A few months later, Salmon was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting, and his cell mate was the key prosecution witness.

In 1981, trucker Robert Bray was killed when his truck cab fell on him in Huntington Beach. Authorities assumed it was an accident, but six months later, an inmate in the Los Angeles County Jail, Richard Kish, told police that his cell mate, Willie Wisely, had boasted that he had rigged the cab to fall. Wisely, 31, in jail on a robbery charge, was Bray's stepson.

Kish's information, prosecutors contended later in court, triggered a new investigation that led to Wisely's first-degree murder conviction in his stepfather's death.

Three jail informants were important witnesses against part-time photographer Rodney Alcala, 40, who was sentenced to death in 1981 for killing 12-year-old Robin Samsoe of Huntington Beach.

All three testified at Alcala's murder trial that he had confessed to them separately in jail. Jail informant Michael Herrera was the only prosecution witness who testified that the girl had been kidnaped, enabling the prosecution to seek the death penalty.

Key Retrial Testimony

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