Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Jailhouse snitch’s “right to privacy” beats First Amendment

The theoretical privacy rights of a jailbird would seem a tenuous basis for a judge to toss the First Amendment and order a Florida newspaper to censor its own website.

But on Nov. 30, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jack Schramm Cox ordered the Palm Beach Post to remove transcripts of a convicted murderer’s jailhouse phone calls from the newspaper’s website and to delete any excepts from previously posted stories.

The judge’s order blocked public access to the troubling discourse of convicted killer Frederick “Rock” Cobia, one of South Florida’s most infamous jailhouse informants. Maybe that’s exactly why Cobia’s utterances were erased from a public forum. They revealed the judicial system’s unseemly dependence on the snitch system.

Cobia, 43, copped to a second-degree murder deal three years ago despite brutally beating, then shooting, a South Bay man over a piddling amount of marijuana. Prosecutors have delayed his sentencing. For good reason.

According to the Palm Beach Post, Cobia has been listed as a prosecution witness in 23 cases. He has already provided key testimony in two murder convictions, claiming that the defendants — conveniently placed in his cell by jailers — had told him damning details about the crime. He’s set to offer similar testimony in three upcoming murder trials, including the case that prompted this imbroglio two months ago when defendant Jamal Smith’s assistant public defender filed a complaint that Cobia was bartering his testimony for a light sentence and very special treatment from his jailers.

The lawyer included transcripts of the jailhouse telephone conversations, which were culled by the Palm Beach Post for an Oct. 15 story about mounting complaints from defense attorneys about prosecutors’ use of this serial snitch. Cobia had bragged on the phone about his special accommodations in the jail, his flat-screen television, his private shower. About his access to detectives. He boasted how, posing as a jailhouse lawyer, he had elicited confessions from more than 60 inmates. He talked about the sweetheart sentence he had been promised in return for his testimony.

Two weeks later, Judge Cox confounded the legal community and acted on a complaint from Cobia’s lawyer that the Post had violated the prisoner’s supposed privacy rights. He ordered the website cleansed of those tawdry transcripts.

The newspaper appealed, noting that the Florida Supreme Court has ruled in three separate cases that inmates have no right to privacy when talking on jailhouse phones. Nor, the lawyers argued, did the judge’s decision conform with U.S. Supreme Court’s warning that censorship can be abided only “in rare and exceptional cases.”

Beyond the constitutional issues, the Cobia case offers disturbing insight into how prosecutors turn to snitches to bolster shaky cases. In 2012, the Florida Innocence Project reported that jailhouse informants “with incentives to testify” had provided key testimony in more than 15 percent of wrongful convictions — including 45 percent of the murder cases — later overturned through DNA testing.

Frederick Cobia’s jailhouse phone conversations further illustrate how snitches have warped the judicial system in Florida. Or they would, if Judge Cox hadn’t turned censor.