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August 11, 2009

Posted by Alexandra Natapoff at 02:45 PM

Professional Prison Snitch Ring

I recommend this recent feature article in Reason Magazine by Radley Balko, entitled Guilty Before Proven Innocent. It tells the mind-blowing story of an innocent family in Louisiana, Ann Colomb and her three sons, who were wrongfully convicted of drug trafficking based on the testimony of numerous prison snitches. The informants were part of an information-selling network inside the federal prison, in which inmates purchased files and photographs to help them fabricate testimony which they then marketed to prosecutors in order to get sentence reductions. A bunch of inmates got hold of the Colomb file, and told prosecutors that they would testify against the family. If it werent for a few chance encounters that revealed the scam, the Colomb family would still be in federal prison.

I like this story because it highlights some classic problems with criminal informants. It also illustrates the scale of the phenomenon--and its potential for massive miscarriages of justice-- in ways that may be surprising to people unfamiliar with the daily workings of the criminal process.

As the story illustrates, criminal informants are a primary (and infamous) source of wrongful convictions. Check out the link to the Northwestern University Law School report entitled The Snitch System on the left. Second, there are a lot of them: the government planned to use dozens of prison snitches against the Colomb family, and presiding Judge Tucker Melancon indicated that the phenomenon was pervasive. Third, prosecutors rely heavily on them even when the government should be suspicious. The prosecutor in the Colomb case did not appear to know that his prison snitch witnesses were selling information to each other and then lying about it; rather, he took them at their word even though he knew they had massive incentives to lie. Perhaps most importantly, the story shows how snitching has become commonly understood as a way for suspects and inmates to game the system. The Louisiana snitch ring sold information for thousands of dollars inside and outside the prison. This business plan was a response to a central fact about the U.S. criminal process--that information and leniency are traded freely between offenders and the government without rigorous fact-checking. This case just took it to a new level.


Great post. I live and practice criminal defense law in Louisiana. I was a prosecutor for 20 years and I was naive to the corruption that occurs. Now that I am in private practice i have more cases than I can count that I picked up as appellate attorney; much to my horror to learn that the accused were often convicted based soley on the evidence of one "snitch" who had far more years hanging over his head, later recanted ----and trial judges won't even give the convicted a hearing on a motion for a new trial. The government has a smooth way of letting the snitch tell the jury that he "received nothing for his cooperation". Their(snitch) case obviously goes or is set to go to trial only AFTER snitch comes through for state & the Judges allow this misrepresentation by the DA to the defense bar. I am at a loss. There has to be some federal intervention in our rural parishes. I keep hearing that the investigation is under way, but the song remains the same. The good ole boys put whatever black man they want in Angola for the rest of his life and I see no reprecutions so far. I will not give up this fight ; for the civil rights of those violated in Louisiana.

I am certain to be a frequent reader and welcome any advice you or your readers may have. Keep up the great work. The accused, the frustrated defense attorneys and readers needed a blogger with your fortitude.
Melissa Sugar

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Snitching by Alexandra Natapoff A Barnes & Noble Best Pick of 2009

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