Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida’s high court puts brakes on snitches’ testimony

Andres Garcia Florez delivered what was supposed to be the clincher in the murder case against Clifford Friend.

Friend was on trial in Miami-Dade Circuit Court for the 1984 murder of his wife. He was accused of strangling Lynne Friend and dumping her body over the side of his fishing board into Atlantic Ocean. Cops never found her body. But they had found some convincing evidence. And they also had the testimony of a jailhouse informant.

And wasn’t it compelling? Florez, a convicted cocaine trafficker, testified that in April, fellow inmate Friend had essentially admitted to the murder. He recalled how the two of them had been had been watching a telenovela on Spanish-language TV in which a villain had tossed his girlfriend overboard.

The Herald’s David Ovalle reported Garcia Florez’s damning words: “He told me, ‘Wow it reminds me of what I did. It’s like déjà vu.’ ” He told how Friend had said, “It’s funny, I just saw myself on TV … that’s how it’s done.”

But the defense stunned prosecutors, announcing that they had jail recordings of Friend’s telephone calls proving that he had been on the telephone when the TV show aired. The judge later instructed the jury to disregard the testimony of Garcia Florez, that the jailhouse snitch had “fabricated his testimony.”

Friend was convicted anyway, but the case provided yet another study into the unseemly art of jailhouse snitching. Garcia Florez, serving 30 years and in desperate need of a sentence reduction, knew a conveniently overheard jailhouse confession in a notorious murder case might well buy him an early release date.

Just 10 days before that prosecutorial embarrassment, another jailhouse snitch was unraveling in another big South Florida murder trial. Herman Robinson, serving a 25-year stretch for attempted murder, had testified in Jesse Miller’s murder trial that one of his former jail cellmates had confided to him that he and Miller had been accomplices in the 1999 robbery of a West Palm Beach Chick-fil-A in which the restaurant manager had been killed.

Robinson was the key witness in the mostly circumstantial case against Miller. But Miller’s defense attorney confronted Robinson with jailhouse recordings of phone calls he had made to his girlfriend, explaining to her how he had invented the testimony against Miller so he could strike a deal “cause it’s a dog-eat-dog world.”

Jurors deliberated just two hours before acquitting Miller.

Maybe Miami-Dade‘s most prolific snitch was Robin Lunsceford, a career criminal who — if she was to be believed — managed to elicit jailhouse admissions from four murder suspects, including Geralyn Graham, the caregiver whose foster child Rilya Wilson had vanished from her home. “You would be amazed at the confessions that come your way,” Lunceford told the Herald. (Graham was convicted for kidnapping and aggravated child abuse but, despite Lunceford's testimony, the jury deadlocked on the murder charge.)

Lunceford, with more than two dozen convictions, including armed robbery and several escape attempts, managed to parlay her testimony into a nice sentence reduction. She was released from jail last spring.

Not that I’m arguing that Clifford Friend or Geralyn Graham are innocents. There was plenty of evidence that they were appalling characters. But the use of questionable snitch testimony makes you wonder just how far prosecutors will go to insure a conviction.

No one would argue that Ángel Nieves Díaz was, well, an angel. He was clearly involved in the 1979 robbery of a Miami strip club, the Velvet Swing, in which the manager was killed. But his capital murder conviction in the case was delivered by Ralph Gajus, a cellmate who testified that Díaz, who hardly spoke English, had indicated his guilt by hand gestures, that he “acted out the shooting using his hands.”

Díaz was executed in 2006, in a brutal, botched lethal injection that took an hour before the prisoner finally died.

In 2012, the Florida Innocence Project reported that jailhouse informants had testified in more than 15 percent of the wrongful conviction cases later overturned through DNA testing.

Snitches were even more prominent in erroneous capital murder convictions. “Of the exonerees released from Death Row, 45.9 percent were convicted, in part, due to false informant testimony. This makes fabricated testimony a leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases. Further studies have shown that informant perjury was a factor in nearly 50 percent of wrongful murder convictions.”

Clarence Zacke may be the most infamous of Florida’s lying jailhouse informants. Zacke, who was serving 180 years for attempted murder plots, claimed he had overheard Brevard County rape suspect Wilton Dedge confess during a prison van ride in 1984. Dedge served 22 years before he was cleared through DNA testing. Zacke also provided the key testimony against accused serial killer Gerald Stano, who was executed. (Zacke was indeed rewarded with a sentence reduction for his murder-for-hire convictions but he has since picked up a child sex abuse conviction that’s keeping him behind bars, probably for life.)

Brevard County police seemed to have had a penchant for jailhouse informants. Roger Dale Chapman, in jail for sexual battery, has since said that Brevard cops pressured him into conjuring up the supposed confession to a 1981 murder by William Dillion, who spent 27 years in prison before DNA testing cleared him.

The Florida Supreme Court, citing the Innocence Project’s findings, finally has changed the rules of evidence. Beginning this month, prosecutors now are required to disclose both a summary of the jailhouse informant’s criminal history and just what kind of deal a snitch will be getting in return for testimony. And now, jurors will hear about prior cases that relied on testimony from that particular informant.

The justices ordered new restrictions on the much abused informant testimony, because snitches, the court noted, “constitute the basis for many wrongful convictions.” It was an unanimous decision. It was about time.