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Suspect's Wife Had Access to Trial Information

Law: A clerk in the district attorney's office, she looked into a confidential computer file in the gang murder case, officials say.

July 09, 2002|ANNA GORMAN and STEVE BERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

For five months last year, a prosecutor's clerk looked into a confidential computer file listing witnesses in the murder case against her husband, a gang member, investigators say.

LaShonn Roberts-Devault took her first unauthorized peek at the file on the day her husband was charged, March 27. It was not until mid-September, after she had accessed the file 37 more times, authorities said, that officials in Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's office discovered what their employee was doing.

Police suspected that she had passed the names of the witnesses to her husband, Lamont Devault. Devault threatened the girlfriend of a key witness two days after Roberts-Devault first accessed the computer, according to court records. Four months later, the same witness was stabbed seven times one day before Devault's trial was scheduled to begin. Before that incident, prosecutors had disclosed a list of witnesses in the public court file.

Prosecutors acknowledged that the case points up troublesome aspects of the ability of the legal system to protect witnesses and ensure that justice is done in gang cases. Gang homicides are often the most difficult to solve, police say, because of the reluctance of witnesses, who fear gang retribution, to participate.

Roberts-Devault admitted that she had accessed her husband's file but denied divulging the names of witnesses to him. She said she had read the file only to keep up with the case.

"Why would I need to look 38 times just to get the names of witnesses?" she asked.

Cooley's office referred Roberts-Devault, a 10-year employee, to Long Beach authorities for criminal prosecution on misdemeanor charges of unauthorized access to computers.

Last month, the Long Beach assistant city prosecutor, Dan Lenhart, rejected the request because Cooley's office had submitted it after the statute of limitations had expired, making prosecution impossible. Even if he could legally have prosecuted the case, Lenhart said, he believed that there was not enough evidence.

Cooley's investigators bugged Roberts-Devault's jailhouse conversations with her husband, searched her home, examined her computer and, under court order, placed electronic devices on her phone to identify incoming and outgoing calls.

Although she told investigators she had accessed the file only once or twice, their investigation turned up many other instances, according to court records. She accessed the computer file six times on the day charges were filed, three times on the day he was taken into custody and five times on the day he was arraigned, the records show.

Roberts-Devault also acknowledged to authorities that she had looked in the file of her husband's co-defendant, Ruben Jones, another instance of unauthorized computer access. She said she had acted at the request of Jones' sister and wanted only to learn the amount of his bail.

The district attorney's office placed Roberts-Devault on paid administrative leave in November. She resigned in February.

The internal computer system, access to which is limited to employees of the district attorney's office, includes basic information about the defendant, court dates, a list of witnesses and the names of the prosecutors. It does not provide any information about evidence or witness statements.

Any access of computer records for personal reasons is deemed unauthorized, according to Cooley's office.

The head deputy of the district attorney's hard-core gang unit, Janet Moore, said the full extent of Roberts-Devault's involvement had never become clear. Moore said the "mere prospect" that Roberts-Devault could have relayed sensitive information about a murder case to her husband "cannot be tolerated."

"I cannot say conclusively if there was interference," she said. "It looks suspicious."

Police agreed that Roberts-Devault's actions were worrisome.

"It's hard to say exactly what she did," said a Los Angeles police detective, Matthew Spillane. "Everyone was concerned with what she could have done." His partner, Rudy Flores, wrote in court papers that a danger existed to potential witnesses in the case, in part because of Roberts-Devault's access to sensitive and confidential material and her marriage to Devault.

"I believe Roberts-Devault shared this information with her husband, defendant Lamont Devault," he wrote in the application to a judge for an order to monitor her phone calls.

The Devault case began in June 2000, when a bystander was shot and killed in a gun battle between rival gang members.

Three months later, Clarence Hardiman told detectives that he had been at Jones' house on the night of the shooting. He said he had seen Devault and Jones with AK-47 rifles and later heard them talking about the shooting.

On the day he was arrested, Devault visited Hardiman's girlfriend and told her to tell Hardiman to stop talking to police, according to court papers.

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