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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
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Jailhouse Snitch Tainted Conviction, Justices Say

(CN) - The Supreme Court on Monday declined to intervene in the second chance given to a man who has spent 17 years in prison for murder, based almost entirely on the testimony of an otherwise unreliable jailhouse snitch.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit ordered California in November 2010 to either release Bobby Joe Maxwell or convene a new trial for him.

In 1979, police pegged Maxwell as the so-called Skid Row Stabber, who allegedly murdered 10 men in downtown Los Angeles. Maxwell was convicted in 1984 of two counts of first degree murder and one count of robbery, crimes for which he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The sole physical evidence tying Maxwell to any of the crime scenes was a palm print on a public bench near one of the victims. More helpful to the prosecution's case, however, was the testimony of Sidney Storch, "one of the most notorious jailhouse informants in the history of Los Angeles County," Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained Monday.

By testifying in 1984 that Maxwell had confessed to being the Skid Row Stabber, Storch shaved 20 months off his prison sentence. Storch claimed that Maxwell's confession occurred while the two shared a cell in the months before Maxwell's trial. He said Maxwell had been reading a newspaper article about the Skid Row Stabber case that discussed the palm print investigators had found near one of the crime scenes.

"Upon reading this article, Storch testified, Maxwell confessed that he had made a 'mistake' by not wearing gloves," according to the 9th Circuit.

Maxwell's appeals proved unsuccessful until the Pasadena-based federal appeals court ordered a new trial in November 2010.

With the Supreme Court's refusal to take up the state's case on Monday, that order will move forward.

The justices rarely write about their decision to accept or reject petitions, but Maxwell's case earned two opinions.

"Because the Ninth Circuit meticulously set forth an avalanche of evidence demonstrating that the state court's factual finding was unreasonable, I agree with the court's decision to deny certiorari," Sotomayor wrote.

The justice noted that Maxwell's trial was one of at least six in which Storch testified over a four-year period. One inmate, Daniel Roach, told the Los Angeles Times, in 1989: "It seems that half the world just confesses to Sidney Storch."

But the whole time he was testifying, "evidence mounted that Storch repeatedly was fabricating inmates' confes­sions for personal gain," Sotomayor wrote.

"As even the state acknowledges, Storch's signature method was to fashion inmates' sup­posed confessions from publicly available information in newspaper articles."

Some prosecutors declined to use Storch because of his record of lying. "In 1987, sheriff's deputies even confiscated a manual written by Storch instructing other jailhouse snitches how to fabri­cate confessions," Sotomayor wrote (emphasis in original). "None of this was out of character for Storch, who was discharged from the Army in 1964 be­cause he was a 'habitual liar,' and was arrested repeat­edly for crimes of dishonesty, including forgery, fraud, and false impersonation - including falsely impersonating a Central Intelligence Agency officer."

"As the Ninth Circuit explained at length, both before and after Maxwell's trial, various police officers and prose­cutors believed Storch to be unreliable, dishonest, and willing to set up defendants for his own ends."

Sotomayor said it is "not reasonable" to believe "that Storch repeatedly falsely implicated other defend­ants, and fabricated other material facts at Maxwell's trial, but uncharacteristically told the truth about Max­well's supposed confession."

Justice Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito took the counterpoint, saying the 9th Circuit had "unquestionably ignored" the commands of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 by "invalidating two 26-year-oldmurder convictions which the intervening loss of witnesses and evidence will likely make it impossible to retry."

The 9th Circuit's decision is based "on nothing more than circumstantial evidence indicating that Storch was gener­ally an untruthful person," Scalia wrote.

The dissent also notes that Maxwell "confessed the crime much more explicitly" to two cellmates other than Storch.

Scalia and Alito also took issue with the 9th Circuit's finding that the Maxwell suffered violations to his due-process rights under the 14th Amendment with Storch's testimony.

"It is a regrettable reality that some federal judges like to second-guess state courts," Scalia wrote (emphasis in original). "The only way this court can ensure observance of Congress's abridgement of their habeas power is to perform the unaccustomed task of reviewing utterly fact-bound decisions that present nodisputed issues of law. We have often not shrunk from that task, which we have found particularly needful with regard to decisions of the Ninth Circuit.

"Today we have shrunk, letting stand a judgment that once again deprives California courts of that control over the state's administration of criminal justice which federal law assures. We should grant the petition for certiorari and summarily reverse the Ninth Circuit's latest unsupportable §2254 judgment."

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