At about 10 p.m. on August 6, 1980, the body of 40-year-old Jesus Riso was pushed from a van onto the sidewalk on Fillmore Street in Bell, California. He had been shot once in the face and his wallet with $400 was missing.
A neighbor saw a man get out of the van, open the cargo door and drag the body out. Police determined that Riso had been last seen alive at a nearby tavern where he left with a woman. Six months after the murder, an anonymous tip led police to this woman, Katherine Lee Weathers, who was in jail for public intoxication.
Detectives said that Weathers told them that she wanted to commit a robbery by luring someone out of a bar. She said that Vincent Frangello, with whom she was romantically involved, and 22-year-old James Shortt had agreed to help. She went inside the bar and drank a beer with Riso. When she left, he followed her outside. There, she said she opened the door to the van and Riso got in, where Shortt and Frangello were waiting. At first she told police she shot Riso, but then changed her statement and said Shortt was the gunman.
On February 22, 1981, police arrested Frangello and seized his van. Frangello admitted taking part in the robbery and said Shortt pulled the trigger. The neighbor who saw the body being dumped identified Frangello in a lineup as the man who pulled the body out of the van.
Shortt was arrested on February 23, 1981. Shortt, Frangello and Weathers were charged with murder and robbery. There was no physical or forensic evidence that connected Shortt to the crime.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office offered Frangello and Weathers a deal in which, in exchange for their testimony against Shortt, they would plead guilty to reduced charges and be committed to the California Youth Authority (CYA) instead of state prison. The deal also provided that, should the Youth Authority reject them, they would not be sentenced to state prison. The prosecution disclosed to Shortt’s defense attorney that they would be sentenced to the CYA, meaning that they would be released no later than their 25th birthdays. The prosecution did not disclose that Weathers and Frangello would receive probation, not prison time, should the CYA reject them.
In August 1982, the CYA rejected both Frangello and Weathers and they were sentenced to probation.
On his first day of testimony at trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Frangello testified that Shortt shot Riso. But when he returned to the witness stand the following day, Frangello said, “Everything I said was a lie.” After a recess, he got back on the stand and implicated Shortt again.
Weathers implicated Shortt as the gunman, although she was impeached with her initial statement in which she said she shot Riso.
Another witness initially told police and investigators that she was at a party on the night of the murder when Shortt came in and he had blood on his hands. She recanted this statement on two occasions prior to trial. When she took the stand at trial, she admitted that her initial statement was false and that she had lied to police at the insistence of her boyfriend, Weathers’s brother.
Stephen Cisneros, a convicted rapist who was facing new charges of rape, auto theft and aggravated assault, testified that about two weeks after Shortt, Frangello and Weathers were arrested, he rode with Shortt on a Sheriff’s Department bus taking prisoners to court. Cisneros testified that he asked Shortt why he killed Riso and that Shortt replied, “I had to. I couldn’t leave any witnesses.” Cisneros falsely testified that he received no benefits in exchange for his testimony against Shortt.
A jury convicted Shortt of murder and robbery on June 17, 1982. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The day after Shortt was convicted, Cisneros pleaded guilty to reduced charges and was sentenced to two years in prison, but only served one week before being paroled.
In the late 1980’s a massive scandal unfolded in Los Angeles County involving the use of jailhouse informants who lied about obtaining admissions of guilt from defendants awaiting trial. One informant, Leslie White, showed investigators how he could learn information about another defendant’s case and then use it to trade for favorable treatment with prosecutors.
The revelations spawned a grand jury investigation that culminated in numerous cases being dismissed, some convictions being overturned and significant policy changes regarding the use of such informants.
In 1990, as part of the continuing investigation of informants, Cisneros admitted that Shortt did not make the statement to him on the bus. Cisneros said that the only thing Shortt said on the bus was, “Shut up.”
Cisneros said he was arrested the same day as Shortt. Facing at least 12 years on the new charges, he agreed to act as informant for detectives. He said that on March 10, 1981, he was placed on a bus taking prisoners to court, although he did not have a court appearance scheduled. He was going on what was known as a “dry run,” specifically to listen to conversations of other prisoners. On that bus were Shortt, Weathers, and Frangello.
A few days later, when Cisneros told detectives that Shortt had not made any admissions, the detectives—according to Cisneros—provided him with police reports so that he could learn the facts of the case. The detectives offered him a two-year prison term if he testified that Shortt admitted killing Riso.
A lawyer for Shortt filed several petitions seeking a new trial, but despite the new evidence, was unsuccessful. Ultimately, a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed, alleging that the prosecution had failed to turn over evidence that Cisneros, Frangello and Weathers were all offered deals in exchange for their testimony.
On October 16, 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted the writ and ordered a new trial for Shortt because the prosecution had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence.
In January 2010, Shortt went on trial before a jury once more. The jury acquitted him on January 19, 2010 and he was released.
In 2011, Shortt filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Los Angeles County and the estates of the two detectives that Cisneros said had fabricated Shortt’s admission to the shooting.
– Maurice Possley