CBS/48 Hours ran this special investigative report on serial killer-FBI informant Scott Kimball. Kimball--a long-time felon--was sharing a prison cell and saw a photo of his cellmate's girlfriend, Jennifer Marcum. Kimball concocted a story about a murder-for-hire scheme in order to secure his own release, and then--while working for the FBI as an informant--proceeded to murder Marcum and at least two other women. When Marcum's parents approached the FBI with their suspicions, Kimball's FBI handler dismissed them. This dynamic is one of the major dangers of informant reliance: not only was Kimball able to use his status as a jailhouse snitch to gain release based on fabricated evidence, but his snitch status and relationship with the government protected him, at least initially, from investigation.
This story reveals, among other things, that there are no clear lines between jailhouse snitches and working informants--one can morph into another and, all too often, take the government along for the ride. This fact should influence those states--including California, Illinois, and Texas, to name but a few-- that are considering jailhouse snitch reforms. The same concerns about unreliability and criminal conduct are present whenever any criminal informant--in or out of jail--trades information in order to escape punishment for his own crimes.
Here's a story of violent irony. Last Friday, two young New Jersey women were sentenced for participating in the execution of a friend--Latyria Nealy--because the gang to which all three women belonged thought Nealy might be snitching. Having lured Nealy to her death on suspicion of being a snitch, one of the women, Nikki Moore, then became an informant herself, providing "significant, extensive, and comprehensive" cooperation which earned her two years off her 12-year sentence. The other defendant apparently also cooperated in some fashion but did not get any credit. Story here: Pair Sentenced in Gang Execution: Asbury Park Woman Killed for being a 'Snitch'. The irony, of course, lies in the cycle of violence in which people work off their sentences for killing suspected informants by becoming informants themselves. The deeper challenge is helping young people surrounded by crime who are caught in the middle--between violent gangs that threaten those who talk, and a criminal system that punishes those who remain silent.
Last week, a federal jury decided that two Los Angeles police officers violated a young woman's constitutional rights by falsely labeling her a snitch--a label that led to her death--and then failing to protect her. L.A. Times stories here and here. In an effort to get gang member Jose Ledesma to confess to a murder, police told him that Puebla had identified him as the shooter, even forging her signature on a fake photo array, although Puebla never identified Ledesma. At the same time, the jury found that Puebla and her parents also contributed to her death, and awarded no money to the family.
This is an interesting case for a number of reasons. First, the government is rarely held accountable for its use of or failure to protect informants, so the jury's conclusion that the police violated Puebla's constitutional rights by using her in the ruse and then failing to protect her could support future cases. Here is a link to the complaint in the case: Puebla v. Los Angeles, Case No. 08-3128. For another example of the trend(?) towards greater protection for informants--particularly young vulnerable ones--see this post on Florida's new informant legislation. At the same time, the Los Angeles jury apparently believed that Puebla and her family significantly contributed to her danger--finding the family 80% responsible and the police only 20% at fault. While it is unclear from the Times article why the jury came to this conclusion, the public and the criminal system often blame informants for their own injuries or even death, on the theory that they take the risk by becoming informants in the first place. In this case, the government argued that Puebla was killed, not because of the police ruse, but because she testified months later at a hearing in which she said that Ledesma was gang-affiliated.
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