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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jailhouse snitches for the defense

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently rejected a motion by Calvin Carnes, a convicted killer, to stay his appeal pending his attempts to seek a new trial on the ground that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence. The evidence in question was an affidavit of a jailhouse informant who claimed that Robert Turner, one of Carnes's accomplices, confessed to the homicides. The Suffolk District Attorney's Office justified waiting eighteen months to turn over the affidavit on the ground that they had needed time to check out the informant's story, meet with Turner's attorneys, and, assuming the informant's story was true, allow Turner more time to make incriminating statements. The prosecutors further argued that the delay didn't matter because the informant was "unreliable and untrustworthy based on his extensive criminal history and the fact that he was giving inaccurate and incomplete information." The response of Ellen Zucker, Carnes's attorney, is worth quoting in full:
Prosecutors use jailhouse snitches all the time when they’re seeking prosecution of somebody. In each case, they have a profile not dissimilar to Mr. Smith, [the informant in this case]. It would be very curious if the district attorney took the standard they’re applying to Mr. Smith and applied it to every jailhouse snitch they put on the stand to try to get a conviction.
Of course, a lying informant is not valuable to anyone, and it is in everyone's best interest for the state to ensure that informants are not permitted to lie. And in the ideal world, the police and prosecutors would exert just as much effort to test the veracity of informant's testifying for them as they do when an informant wishes to provide unhelpful testimony. But if the history of informant use has taught us anything, it is that the combination of more-or-less unbridled prosecutorial discretion, secrecy in the handling of informants, and zeal for convictions has led to inconsistent stances by states depending on whether they are relying upon or attempting to rebut informant testimony. In other words, every jailhouse informant is a lying rat unless he's testifying for your side.