LOS ANGELES – Three decades after Los Angeles courts were rocked by a scandal involving lying jailhouse informants the issue has come back from the dead with an appellate court reversal of a high profile murder case tainted by a lying snitch.
A three judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the lower court Tuesday to either grant a new trial or release from prison a man who had been presumed to be the "Skid Row Stabber" who killed homeless men in the 1970s.
The court overturned two murder convictions and the life sentence of Bobby Jo Maxwell who has been imprisoned since 1979. The judges said Maxwell was convicted in 1984 on the basis of a jailhouse snitch's lies.
It was not just any snitch, they said, but a notorious liar named Sidney Storch who was one of those at the center of the scandal uncovered four years after he testified against Maxwell. Defense attorneys said at the time that 225 defendants were convicted by informants' false testimony including some who were sentenced to death.
Maxwell was accused of 10 killings of transients that took place from 1978-79 in Los Angeles. Jurors convicted him of two, acquitting him of three and deadlocking on five of the charges.
The two convictions, the court said, were obtained through Storch by prosecutors who had little physical evidence and had failed to get usable eye witness identifications in lineups.
One murder witness who viewed a lineup with Maxwell in it was quoted as saying, "You've got everyone up there that doesn't look like him."
With jurors returning two guilty verdicts and finding special circumstances of robbery and multiple murder, prosecutors had sought the death penalty, but a jury rejected that in favor of a life sentence without parole after hearing testimony about prisoners who had been wrongly executed.
The 42-page appellate ruling included an exhaustive examination of Maxwell's nine-month trial and many post trial hearings, one lasting two years, which filled tens of thousands of pages of court transcripts and consumed so much time that the current appeal was deemed "timely" given all the delays.
The court focused on two issues: the false testimony of Storch and the prosecution's failure to disclose that the witness had made a secret deal with the prosecutor to win early release from his own prison sentence in return for his testimony.
In its decision, the appeals court called Storch, a "habitual liar" whose many arrests included one for impersonating a Central Intelligence Agency officer and Howard Johnson, heir of the Howard Johnson hotel chain.
They said Storch developed a method of gleaning information from news stories about inmates' cases, then claiming they had confessed the details to him. It was what he did in Maxwell's case and in at least six others, some of them high profile, He claimed that Stewart Woodman, charged with engineering his parents' Ninja style murder had confessed to him.
"It seems that half the world just confesses to Sidney Storch," another inmate was quoted as saying.
Storch was among informants that the grand jury recommended for prosecution for informant abuses and he was the first to be indicted for perjury following the 1988 scandal. But Storch died in a New York jail before he could face the charges.
As for Maxwell, now in his 60s, trying him again would be difficult with Storch dead and little physical evidence. Prosecutors could seek a rehearing of the case. Otherwise, Maxwell may be free after serving more than 30 years in prison.
Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney, said the office was waiting for the state attorney general "on how they want to proceed" in the case.