Tuesday, April 29, 2014 | 2 a.m.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Jennifer Helen Richmond may have thought she was talking in confidence when she allegedly detailed plans to get out of jail and then flee to Jamaica with her pimp.
George and Shellie Zimmerman likely didn't think anyone else would decipher the codes they used during phone calls.
But investigators were listening to their jailhouse phone conversations, and prosecutors later used their words against them.
Telephone calls are recorded for security purposes at the jail, but these conversations can bolster prosecutors' cases and become a nightmare for defense attorneys.
Despite being warned every time they make a call that they are being recorded, inmates in Central Florida talk about their cases and sometimes make incriminating statements over the phone.
"Depending on how strong the case is for the prosecution based upon the evidence, it could blow the case right out of the water," said Orlando defense attorney Andrew Moses. "It can lead to their conviction."
Recording inmate phone calls is a common practice at jails across the country, said Dave LaBahn, president of the Washington-based Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
State laws dictate how law enforcement can access the conversations.
In Orange County, law enforcement and prosecutors can request recordings of calls from a jail administrator. Authorities can also listen to live calls.
The only calls not recorded or monitored at the jail are those between inmates and their lawyers — because those conversations are privileged, said Orange County Jail spokeswoman Carrie Proudfit.
The phone system is designed to recognize attorney phone numbers so the calls aren't recorded, she said.
Defense attorneys say they tell their clients to not discuss their case over the phone, but inmates don't always listen.
Richmond, a suspected upscale "escort" facing a racketeering charge in Orange County, seemed surprised during a bond-reduction hearing earlier this month when a federal agent said he listened to more than 100 of her jailhouse phone calls and heard her talk about plans to flee the country.
The judge denied Richmond's request for reduced bond and additionally ordered she surrender her passport. Richmond remains behind bars.
In June 2012, prosecutors charged George Zimmerman's wife, Shellie, with perjury after determining she lied during her husband's bond hearing and said they were broke.
George Zimmerman was jailed at the time of that hearing, and recorded calls showed he and Shellie used a "code" to talk about the thousands of dollars being donated to his defense fund.
Shellie Zimmerman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor perjury charge in August and was sentenced to one year of probation.
"It's such an obvious thing that an inmate shouldn't do," said Orlando defense attorney Richard Hornsby. "It's something we've been dealing with for years."
Jail recordings have been used by prosecutors to help build cases against suspects and during sentencing proceedings to show a defendant is less than remorseful.
One of the reasons jailhouse phone calls can be so important to prosecutors is they contain the actual voice of the suspect — not hearsay, LaBahn said.
Prosecutors handling the case against Jesse Davis, convicted of killing two Winter Park High students, said jailhouse phone calls showed he was faking signs of mental illness to trick doctors who were evaluating his competency.
Jailhouse calls also lead police to a suspect's associates, LaBahn said. Whom the inmate is calling can be just as important as what the inmate is saying.
Prosecutors can use the recorded conversations to track money earned from criminal activity — such as if inmates tell someone who owes them money and to collect it.
And, LaBahn said, the calls "may corroborate something you already know about the case."
So why do inmates talk on the phone about such sensitive matters?
Moses said some inmates don't think anyone is actually going to take the time to listen to their calls.
But diligent prosecutors and detectives will listen to hours of these conversations to find a nugget of information.
"All you have to do is slip up once," Moses said.
LaBahn and Hornsby agreed on another reason: Inmates think they're smarter than the authorities. They'll talk in code to try to thwart investigators.
"They don't think they're ever going to figure it out," LaBahn said.
Some inmates don't think what they're saying is incriminating or don't realize the significance of whom they are calling.
And Hornsby said some inmates may just be lonely and let their guard down.
Whatever the reason for talking on the jail phone, these calls pose a major challenge to defense attorneys once a prosecutor introduces them in court.
"Once a defendant says something that's been recorded, there's not a lot of objections you can raise," Hornsby said.
Moses agreed: "There's very little we can do."