More than 40 years later, the jailhouse informant’s credibility calls the conviction into question

After shooting a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who broke into his parents’ home in 1979, Jesse Gonzalez was in an ambulance with another deputy and apologized for the violence.

“I’m sorry, man,” he told the deputy, claiming he thought he was ambushed by a rival gang when he fired at the plainclothes deputies, killing one of them, according to court records.

That was Gonzalez’s defense when his case went to trial. To refute this, prosecutors relied on the testimony of William Acker, a prolific prison whistleblower. Acker testified that Gonzalez confessed to him that he had been informed of the raid and wanted to kill a police officer.

Gonzalez was convicted of first-degree murder, with a special circumstance finding that he had killed an on-duty law enforcement officer. He was sentenced to death.

But prosecutors at the time did not disclose information to Gonzalez’s defense team that would damage Acker’s credibility. And the case occurred at a time when a massive penitentiary whistleblower scandal was ongoing and continued to call into question many convictions.

Now, as part of his decades-long effort to challenge his conviction and death sentence, Gonzalez has an unexpected ally: the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. In a new filing Thursday, prosecutors are asking a judge to consider the merits of Gonzalez’s claim as part of efforts that could result in a new trial.

“There is no doubt that the defendant shot this officer,” said Shelan Joseph, a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office. “Should he be held accountable for first-degree murder or second-degree murder? Our opinion is that the information that was relied upon to seek and obtain the first-degree conviction was based on truly incredible evidence.”

Mark Overland, an attorney who has represented Gonzalez for 24 years, said the prosecutor’s position now is where it should have been long ago when the prison whistleblower scandal came to light.

“They could have done it,” he said in an interview. “What should have happened 40 years ago is happening now.”

Steve Cooley, who served as district attorney from 2000 to 2012 and is now representing the slain deputy’s family, said this case is an effort by Dist. Atty. George Gascon to abolish the death penalty.

“They want to get rid of every death penalty case that’s ever been achieved,” he said in an interview. He would not comment on the merits of the allegation other than to say that the prosecutors handling the case told him those allegations had already been adjudicated. “It’s surprising to me that they’re revisiting it.”

The case dates back to May 1979, when sheriff’s deputies and narcotics officers from two local police departments served a warrant on the La Puente home. They wore tank tops and T-shirts and drove unmarked police cars, according to a Thursday filing from the DA’s office. They announced themselves at the door and heard people moving inside.

Deputy Jack Williams told his partner, Deputy Robert Esquivel, to open the door. They entered about a minute after arriving. That’s when Esquivel saw Gonzalez leaning against a wall, pointing a shotgun at him. Esquivel moved and Gonzalez opened fire. The blast struck Williams in the chest, killing him.

Gonzalez fled and Esquivel chased after him, seeing the man pointing the shotgun in his direction. Esquivel fired his revolver several times, wounding Gonzalez.

A 6-year-old girl and Gonzalez’s 2-month-old son were in a bedroom, the DA’s filing said. Deputies found drug paraphernalia and a .22 caliber handgun in the home, but no drugs.

As Gonzalez was taken to a parking garage, several officers saw him raise his left fist and say “Viva Puente,” believed to be a salute to a local criminal street gang, the affidavit said.

At a hospital the next day, Gonzalez told deputies the shooting was a “freak accident” caused by mistaken identity, Thursday’s filing said. He said he thought the house was attacked by the Bassetts, a rival gang.

At one point while he was hospitalized, he told investigators he was watering the lawn and ran inside when he saw “the cops” coming, according to the DA’s filing. When asked by investigators to repeat what he did when he saw “the cops,” he claimed, “I didn’t say that. You must be confused,” the affidavit said.

Gonzalez was in jail with Acker, who testified that Gonzalez approached him with legal questions. At first, Acker said, he didn’t want to get involved. He testified that Gonzalez confided in him that he had been informed of the raid and wanted to “smash a cop” to protect his home because there was heroin inside. He said Gonzalez planned to claim, or had claimed, that he thought the officers were Bassett, the affidavit said.

Acker, who was awaiting sentencing after pleading no contest to first-degree murder and robbery, said on cross-examination that he voluntarily went to authorities with the confession information, according to the filing. He hoped his testimony would move him to an out-of-state facility where he would be safer. He denied being a police informer.

But in a filing Thursday, prosecutors said they reviewed six other cases in which Acker provided information to law enforcement — and the circumstances under which he obtained confessions were “strikingly similar” to the Gonzalez case. In each case, Acker was placed in a cell with or next to an inmate under investigation at the Men’s Central Jail in downtown LA. The conversations were never recorded.

One of those cases was dismissed after a preliminary hearing by Stephen Trott, a prosecutor at the time who has since become a judge, because Trott had lost faith in Acker’s credibility.

In a deposition years later, Trott described Acker as a “classic psychopath” and a “monster,” the affidavit said. He concluded that Acker’s testimony was “totally insufficient to support a prosecution and certainly nothing that a jury should ever rely on if that was all there was to convict” in the case he dismissed.

He also said prison whistleblowers know the best way to get out is to “find evidence against someone else and use it as a bargaining chip.”

In the recent filing, prosecutors say their counterparts in the DA’s office in the 1980s failed to turn over psychological reports that described Acker as having a “history of lying and manipulative behavior” and a “severe personality disorder.” The affidavit said he faked three suicide attempts to get transfers to other correctional facilities.

Acker testified at Gonzalez’s trial — during the guilt phase and during two penalty phases in 1980 and 1981. The first penalty phase trial ended in a hung jury. In the second, the court sentenced him to death.

Before Acker testified in 1980, the DA’s office requested an out-of-state transfer for him. Acker, the prosecutor wrote, “helped provide information regarding the killing of a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy. As a result of that cooperation, his life was threatened.”

The prosecutor cited Gonzalez’s prison gang ties and said he was concerned about Acker’s “safety if he is incarcerated in California State Prison.”

A grand jury investigation years later found that the DA’s office “tolerated suspected perjury by jailhouse informants as a way to win murder cases.”

In the recent filing, prosecutors said they do not know whether the grand jury examined specific cases in which Acker testified, but “its conclusions are consistent with the circumstances” surrounding his testimony in the Gonzalez case.

The scandal led to reforms that limited the use of prison whistleblowers.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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