Leslie White, the central figure in a probe of jail-house informants, has long been regarded as unreliable by top officials of the district attorney's office, who nonetheless have continued to use him regularly as a witness in criminal cases, it was learned Thursday.
Also Thursday, Los Angeles County Public Defender Wilbur Littlefield said he thought it would be a good idea if the district attorney's office removed itself from the investigation into whether White and other jail-house informants have faked confessions of other inmates in murder cases.
Littlefield said he is "sure there's more than one case" where someone has been wrongly convicted based on a fabricated confession in a case prosecuted by the district attorney's office.
"I'm not questioning the integrity of the their investigation," he said, "except it might look better if some outside agency did it."
He suggested the state attorney general's office, which prosecutes far fewer criminal cases.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrew Diamond, who was one of White's main contacts in the district attorney's office, said he was told in the late 1970s "by my brass that (White) is on our undesirable list . . . (that) in general terms, the guy's an undesirable informant."
Nonetheless, White--part of a small group of jail-house informants who regularly trade information about other inmates' alleged confessions in return for leniency in their own criminal cases--has figured as a witness in more than a dozen Los Angeles County felony cases, many of them murders.
Diamond said White would contact him from jail or prison with information and, when the information concerned a Los Angeles County case, Diamond would refer him to the prosecutor handling it.
Diamond said he acted with the blessings of, and sometimes at the explicit directions of, the highest-level prosecutors in the district attorney's office.
"Whenever I referred him to a police officer or prosecutor, I always told them he was on the undesirable list," Diamond said. "I made an introduction, and I bowed out. . . . My attitude was it was up to them to decide whether it was appropriate to use him."
Defense attorneys have long contended that jail-house informants fabricate confessions. Two weeks ago, White prompted an investigation by demonstrating for the Sheriff's Department that he could fabricate a convincing confession by gathering information on another inmate's case from law enforcement agencies. He used a jail telephone and posed as a prosecutor and police officer.
But there has long been reason to question White's veracity. For example:
- In 1979, an investigation into allegations made by White that a deputy district attorney had suborned perjury showed that White had "misrepresented the facts," according to a former deputy attorney general familiar with the case, who spoke on condition that his name not be published.
In 1981, according to press reports, White baldly contradicted himself while testifying as a defense witness at the trial of Freeway Killer William Bonin. White strongly implied that another jail-house informant, who said Bonin had confessed, was lying. Moments later, on cross-examination, White said what he had just said was not true.
- In 1982, White did another flip-flop in connection with the trial of Hillside Strangler Angelo Buono, according to Buono's defense attorney, Gerald Chaleff. White approached the attorney general's office, which was prosecuting that case, with information that Buono had confessed to him. Later, Chaleff said, White acknowledged to prosecutors that he had made up the confession.
- Four or five years ago, according to Los Angeles defense attorney Mitchell Egers, White proved even more unbelievable when he claimed to prosecutors from the district attorney's office that a man named Leonard Fleetwood Jones confessed a murder to him in jail. Egers, who represented Jones, said White was unable to pick Jones out of a lineup.
Yet the district attorney's office used White as a jail-house informant in seven cases in late 1986 alone.
According to a letter written on his behalf in early 1987 to state parole authorities by Assistant Dist. Atty. Curt Livesay, the third-ranking prosecutor in the office, White testified in three murder cases and a burglary case, and gave statements to authorities in three other murder cases.
Livesay said the letter was to "request any consideration that you deem appropriate" for White, a convicted robber and kidnaper who was then being held in jail for a parole violation.
White has subsequently been used as an informant in other cases.
Livesay said the district attorney's office maintains no formal list of undesirable informants, but acknowledged that White has "a reputation as an undesirable witness."
He said, however, that it is up to each prosecutor to decide whether an informant is telling the truth in a particular case.
He said that for years, the district attorney's office has alerted its lawyers that jail-house informants are "basically unreliable."
"They will lie, double-cross their friends, do anything to get released or to get more favorable treatment in a jail setting," Livesay said.
Asked when an informant such as White becomes so unreliable that he cannot be used anymore, Livesay said, "We may have reached that point."