Prolific snitch reads cellmates' legal papers while they sleep, defense attorney says

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A prolific informant who could potentially testify in nearly two dozen Florida criminal cases says he gets fellow inmates to confess by offering his services as a jailhouse lawyer.

But in fact Frederick Cobia, who claims to have inside knowledge in 23 cases, learns details by reading Palm Beach County cellmates’ legal files when they are asleep, a lawyer for another defendant contends. Then, according to attorney Jonathan Kaplan and other defense lawyers, Cobia trades that knowledge for improved conditions and–at least potentially–a reduced sentence, reports the Palm Beach Post.

“He is not a magnet for confessions,” wrote Kaplan in a court filing in one of the cases in which Cobia claims to have information. “He reads the police reports and lawyer’s notes of those he shares a cell with. He steals litigation documents while his fellow cellmates are in court or sleeping. This is how Cobia obtains his knowledge about the details of a case.”

In addition to objecting to the means used by Cobia to obtain the confessions he claims to have obtained, defense lawyers also are crying foul about special treatment they say Cobia has apparently received. They question as well whether it has been fully disclosed by the government in the cases in which he is serving as an informant.

Among the perks Cobia has claimed in recorded jail phone calls to have received in exchange for his cooperation are a private cell with a big-screen television, and speed-dial privileges to allow him swift access to local sheriff’s deputies, the newspaper reports. He says he has also been taken out to dinner by investigators.

Originally charged with first-degree murder in the death of Desmond Dunkley, 57, who Cobia shot and pistol-whipped during a drug dispute, Cobia avoided a potential capital conviction by pleading guilty in 2012 to second-degree murder and agreeing to cooperate in eight cases, the Post reports.

Cobia has said in recorded calls that he hopes to see his potential 25-year sentence for that crime substantially reduced as a result of his cooperation. But claims that he has actually arranged to do so are pooh-poohed by prosecutors, who say he is simply bragging, the article continues.

Within the last three years, Cobia has been listed as a prosecution witness in 23 cases, although he has testified in only a fraction of them.

“Most jailhouse snitches are not jailhouse lawyers,” said Gregg Lerman, another defense attorney who has crossed swords with Cobia on a client’s behalf. “I’ve never seen someone offer to cooperate against this many people. I’ve never seen them use one inmate to testify against so many people.”

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