Two leading defense lawyer organizations Thursday formally asked for a special prosecutor to conduct a grand jury investigation into what they described as a jailhouse informant scandal that is "threatening to undermine public confidence in our system of justice" in Los Angeles County.
The groups are the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a statewide organization of 2,100 criminal defense lawyers, and the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Bar Assn., whose membership includes some prosecutors and judges.
Citing an obscure state law that allows the grand jury to ask the presiding judge to appoint a special prosecutor in certain, unspecified circumstances, they made their request of the grand jury and of the presiding judge of Superior Court.
Before the judge can act on such a request, the law states, he must determine that a conflict of interest exists that would bar the district attorney, the county counsel and the state attorney general from conducting the investigation the grand jury wants to undertake.
The law also requires that the county's auditor-controller certify that the grand jury has enough money in its budget to conduct the investigation.
In legal papers submitted to the grand jury, the defense lawyers asserted that the grand jury has an "obligation" to investigate recent news accounts that authorities may have improperly used jailhouse informants. The reports said the district attorney's office gave those informants rewards to testify, used them as witnesses even though they were known to be unreliable and did not give information about them to defense lawyers.
The defense lawyers also noted that the Superior Court can order a reluctant grand jury to investigate charges against public officials.
The lawyers said, "Possible criminal offenses which may be involved in this situation include obstruction of justice, bribery and subornation of perjury."
No member of the grand jury was available for comment Thursday.
The lawyers also asked the presiding judge, Richard P. Byrne, to order law enforcement agencies to preserve all their information about informants. Byrne set a hearing on that request for today.
A spokesman for the district attorney's office, which is conducting its own review of jailhouse informant cases, said he had no comment on the request for a special prosecutor but noted that the district attorney's office has already asked its own prosecutors and police agencies to preserve data about informants.
The defense lawyers were reacting to disclosures that began in October, when a longtime jailhouse informant, Leslie Vernon White, demonstrated that he could gather enough information to fabricate the murder confession of a defendant he had never met.