Honor among thieves? Well, murderers, really, but you get the point.
For a man who has spent most of his life in prison, Frederick Cobia has a vaunted opinion about himself.
And, defense attorneys say, it’s with good reason.
Cobia says he’s “real sharp with the law,” and apparently he is, one way or another. According to Cobia, he’s got such mad jailhouse lawyer skillz that others spill their guts to him, confessing their crimes in the hope that he can save them.
Using his skills as a jailhouse lawyer, Cobia says he engages fellow inmates in conversation. Inevitably, he says, they confess. Then, he turns the information over to law enforcement.
In a twist on two time-honored cell-block traditions, the jailhouse lawyer has become one of Palm Beach County’s most notorious jailhouse snitches.
During the last 2½ years, Cobia has been listed as a prosecution witness in 23 cases, testified in two murder trials and is expected to testify in three more, including one that is expected to begin before the end of the year. Through cunning and meticulous note-taking, he said he has gathered information on dozens of other inmates.
It would appear that Cobia is awfully good at saving someone. Just not the prisoners who thought they were getting helped.
“I’m so important to these people,” he crowed in a recorded jail conversation with his daughter last year. “I’m the only person in the United States’ history that could ever provide testimony that could close over 60 murder cases, you hear me? I know a lot, sweetie. I’m gonna sit down and write a book about all these different murders and what happened and how they happened. Cause I know the law real good. I’m real sharp with the law.”
Does he “know the law real good”? Good enough to get his first degree murder charge for a brutal murder reduced to second degree, meaning that he won’t be subject to a 25 year minimum sentence.
Since Cobia pleaded guilty three years ago to fatally shooting a 57-year-old South Bay man after pistol-whipping him so severely that he broke nearly every bone in the man’s face, the 43-year-old Belle Glade native has become a darling of Palm Beach County prosecutors and sheriff’s investigators.
What Cobia has done raises questions on many levels, the first of which is that there is no attorney/client privilege with a snitch cum jailhouse lawyer. He may be adept at talking a good game as a jailhouse lawyer, and indeed, all it really takes is a con man capable of tossing around some legal jargon, just a little more than what his marks know, and presto, he’s the magic man.
The fuzzy assumption that the guy in the next cell who some of the others in the cellblock say knows law-stuff is somehow as capable of aiding others as a bunch of dunderheads believe, or honorable about keeping it to himself like a real lawyer would be, isn’t necessarily true. They’re not all Shon Hopwoods.
But more to the legal point, the outsider assumption that criminals know the law is largely nonsense. Maybe a bit here, a piece there, but not the law. And in Cobia’s case, one piece that they didn’t get right is that the information they provided their jailhouse lawyer isn’t subject to the limitation of privilege. They gave it to Cobia, and he took it and ran with it. Right to the Palm Beach County prosecutors.
And then, there is the question of how prosecutors and police were willing to get naked and hop into bed with this killer.
However, defense attorneys claim, the book that should be written is about why Palm Beach County prosecutors cut a deal with a career criminal who is providing dubious information at best. The practice is more repellent, they say, because studies have shown that snitch testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convictions.
Defense attorneys question whether Cobia actually obtained the confessions he claims, contending that he did nothing more than read the court papers in cells while other prisoners were asleep or at court. The implication is that he gained a little knowledge about their cases, then fabricated a confession so he could hand it over to prosecutors on a silver platter. As they correctly note, there is no testimony more dubious, more likely to result in a wrongful conviction, than that of the other fixture of the jailhouse, the snitch.
“He is not a magnet for confessions,” attorney Jonathan Kaplan wrote in court papers, disputing Cobia’s claim that his client confessed to killing his wife. “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.”
But here’s the problem, and it cuts both ways. If Cobia gained his knowledge from pretending to be the jailhouse lawyer for another prisoner, then he’s a conman, a liar, to the prisoner. If he fabricated the confessions, then he’s a liar to the prosecution, not that they mind terribly as long as he gives them what they need. Either way, he’s a liar. And if he’s a liar to one side, he’s just as likely a liar to the other side.
That’s the thing about liars. They lie. And lying liars lie for their own benefit, not for someone else’s. If that means they lie to fellow prisoners, there is no basis upon which to believe they aren’t lying to prosecutors as well. And to their own daughters. And to everyone.
Even with a reduced sentence for his “substantial,” and that word isn’t used lightly, “assistance,” Cobia stands to do some serious time for his murder.
But, defense attorneys point to emails between Masters and then-prosecutor Kirk Volker before Cobia pleaded guilty to Dunkley’s murder. In the email string, Masters asked Volker whether Cobia could skirt the 25-year minimum sentence because he had offered the state “substantial assistance.”
“So, he could get 15 years or whatever, right?” she asks.
Volker, now a circuit judge, responded by saying Florida law “does not limit the judge’s ability to mitigate the sentence.”
Given the breadth of his cooperation, and the scope of his duplicity, Cobia is unlikely to win any popularity contests in prison.
If Cobia doesn’t ultimately win a reduced sentence, life will be difficult for him and he will become a headache for prison officials. In the recorded phone calls, Cobia has suggested that he would have to be housed out of state or possibly placed in a federal prison with a witness protection program.
Given his extracurricular work, defense attorneys say he’s not overstating the risks he faces. “If he gets sent to prison and put in the general population, I expect his life expectancy would be short,” Lerman said.
And once he no longer has anything to offer the prosecution, there is a good chance his privilege of a private cell with telephone and shower will end, together with any likelihood of making lifelong friends in prison. Then again, “lifelong” may not mean a lot for Cobia once he’s done giving testimony against his fellow prisoners. Bummer.
H/T Mario Machado