Dec 10, 2013
The Case You Go to Law School For
Posted on Oct 18, 2011
By Bill Blum
Just a year before Maxwell was put on trial, the DA had secured a conviction in the Hillside Strangler case. The office was on a roll and on a mission. It wasn’t about to reconsider Maxwell’s guilt, even with the threadbare evidence against him.
By the time Wefald agreed to take on his case, Maxwell had languished for five years without appellate representation. From the start, it was a lonely job. Since Maxwell’s jury had voted to spare him the death penalty, Wefald had no ready-made network of like-minded lawyers and activist abolitionist groups like Death Penalty Focus that often provide assistance and moral support in capital cases. Many of Wefald’s peers, myself included, thought there was little that could be done for Maxwell short of an outright reversal of his conviction. And that, we thought, bordered on fantasy.
But there was a small opening in the darkness. In 1988, another notorious jailhouse informant—Leslie White—whose relations with the DA had soured, went public. White demonstrated to sheriff’s deputies and later on CBS’ “60 Minutes” how he and other informants like Storch were able to obtain confidential information and then fabricate confessions of fellow prisoners.
White’s revelations prompted the state’s attorney general to appoint a special counsel and convene a grand jury investigation. Over the next two years, the grand jury heard under oath from more than 120 witnesses, including White and Storch, who was looking for leniency after he had been caught lying in another unrelated criminal case. In all, the defense bar estimated that White, Storch and other informants had trumped up testimony in Los Angeles County over a 10-year period against some 225 defendants accused of murder and other serious felonies. Storch’s signature method, used to “book” high-profile defendants, was to gain proximity while in jail and then, as the 9th Circuit noted, “get information about the case from the media, usually a newspaper, and then call the district attorney or law enforcement and offer to testify.”
As Wefald’s work moved forward, other lawyers, investigators and researchers began looking into the misuse of jailhouse informants, not only in Los Angeles and California, but nationwide. What they found was ugly and chilling—that testimony from snitches was the leading cause of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases in the U.S., and that in California, 20 percent of wrongful convictions stemmed from perjured informant statements. Spurred by such findings, this past August, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that bans judges and juries from convicting defendants based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of jailhouse informants.
Given the current hard-right ideological orientation of the U.S. Supreme Court and the rigid posture of the L.A. County District Attorney, the new legislation and all the horrifying revelations about jailhouse informants will be of little avail to Bobby Joe Maxwell. The Supreme Court used to be a place where good cases went for vindication. Not anymore.
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