Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Public gets glimpse into workings of snitch justice

The forbidden words of a super snitch have been restored to the public record.

“I’m the only person in United States’ history that could ever provide testimony that could close over 60 murder cases, you hear me?” Freddy Cobia had boasted on the jailhouse telephone.

Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Jack Cox had confounded the legal community Nov. 30 when, citing Cobia’s right to privacy, he ordered the convicted killer’s braggadocio both removed from public court records and erased from the website of the Palm Beach Post.

Transcripts of his conversations had been posted two weeks earlier with a Post story exposing the special treatment Cobia enjoyed — including a private cell with a flatscreen TV — in return for “confessions” he claimed to have elicited from various cellmates.

The Post complied with the order. The transcripts and quotes from the recorded conversation disappeared. But on Tuesday, Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal quashed Cox’s “overbroad” order. Once again the public can see how the snitch justice system works in Florida. And it ain’t pretty.

Cobia’s one of South Florida’s more infamous jailhouse informants who turn up as star witnesses in big trials, rescuing otherwise shaky prosecutions. According to the Palm Beach Post, the career criminal has been listed as a prosecution witness in 23 cases, including three pending murder cases. Records of his taped phone conversations were introduced by a defense lawyer in an upcoming homicide case as evidence that Cobia had been promised a reduced sentence in return for ginning up all those confessions. “I done worked out a deal to reduce my sentence and for me to come home, you understand me?”

In 2012, the Florida Innocence Project reported that jailhouse informants with such “incentives to testify” had provided crucial testimony in more than 15 percent of wrongful convictions — including 45 percent of the murder cases — that were later overturned through DNA testing. A study conducted by the Center on Wrongful Convictions found that “incentivized witnesses,” a polite term for jailhouse snitches, “were the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases.”

Cobia, 43, was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder three years ago despite the brutality of the crime. He had savagely pistol-whipped a South Bay man over a petty drug deal, then shot him dead. Prosecutors have delayed sentencing, housing him in the county jail where he magically extracts confession after confession.

Cobia’s attorney, for obvious reasons, wanted to keep her client’s unguarded references to an unofficial plea deal hidden from public scrutiny. Still, it was shocking that Judge Cox decided a convicted prisoner’s right to privacy trumped the First Amendment. Not only that, Cox also charged Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Ramsey with contempt of court for including the transcripts in court filings on behalf of her client, Jamal Smith, whose murder trial is set for January. The star witness, of course, is you know who.

As Cobia bragged to his daughter in a 2014 jailhouse phone conversation, now restored to the public record, “I’m so important to these people.”.