Thursday, February 18, 2010

Appearing in Baltimore this weekend

I'll be giving an author talk at the Enoch Pratt Central Library in Baltimore this Sunday, Feb. 21, at 2:00 p.m.; I'll also be signing books at the Barnes & Noble at the Inner Habor on Saturday, Feb. 20, from 3:00-5:00 p.m.

Gregory Taylor exonerated by North Carolina innocence commission

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission declared yesterday that Gregory Taylor was wrongfully convicted of murder, 17 years ago, based on a combination of undisclosed forensic evidence, flawed eyewitness testimony, and a jailhouse snitch. L.A. Times story here; see also here for details of the hearing. North Carolina is the only state to have created a governmental commission that directly reviews post-conviction innocence claims, although other states are considering it given the large number of exonerations in recent years. Several states (e.g. California, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin) have commissions to review the systemic sources of wrongful convictions and to propose reforms. See previous post.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Another wrongful conviction in the making?

The Pacific Northwest Inlander just published this story, entitled Reasonable Doubt, about the recent robbery convictions of Tyler Gassman, Paul Statler, and Robert Larson. The sole evidence against the young defendants was the testimony of Matt Dunham, a confessed drug dealer and robber himself, who named Gassman and the two others as accomplices in a series of unsolved robberies. In exchange for his testimony, Dunham received a light sentence for his own robbery charge--18 months in a juvenile facility; by contrast, Gassman received 25 years. Two weeks after the verdict, Dunham's accomplice, Anthony Kongchunji, came forward and confessed that he and Dunham had conspired to pin the unsolved crimes on Gassman and the others in order to get deals for themselves, their friends, and relatives. The trial court denied the defendants' motion for a new trial, and the case is currently on appeal.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"Used, Abused and Tossed": informants and immigration

Here's part 3 of the NPR series on informants--this one focuses on how ICE sometimes uses non-citizens as informants and then lets them be deported once they are no longer useful: Retired Drug Informant Says He Was Burned (NPR), and Informants can greatly aid US authories but still face deportation (LA Times). Deportation poses special dangers to informants, who may be killed upon returning to their home countries, in much the same way that domestic informants face special dangers in local jails and prisons or even on the streets. The government is under little legal obligation to protect its sources. For example, after he gave his FBI handler a tip, Charles Shuler was shot and paralyzed because the FBI blew his cover. A court dismissed Shuler's lawsuit, ruling that the FBI did not owe him protection. Stories like these reflect the more general phenomenon that informants who lack counsel, education, or other resources are often vulnerable to official exploitation.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

NPR series on "House of Death" informant

NPR is running a three-part series on the federal informant connected to the so-called House of Death murders that occurred six years ago in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico: The Case of a Confidential Informant Gone Wrong. For additional coverage of this story, see this 2007 Dallas Observer feature entitled House of Death. The informant, who was known as "Lalo" to his handlers, was working for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) even as he participated in drug-cartel-ordered executions. Top ICE officials deny knowledge of the murders and claim that "rogue agents" failed to follow guidelines, while Lalo's handler, Agent Raul Bencomo, says his supervisors knew about the killings. According to NPR, ICE withheld information about Lalo's role in the murders from the DEA and from Mexican officials. Former DEA Special Agent Phil Jordan describes the Lalo case as a disaster in which every rule was broken.
Even if the man was John Gotti in his prime, you do not allow an informant to run the investigation; you do not let the informant commit felonies, to commit murder. In my mind, he was given a license to kill.
Jordan testified in the now-defunct civil suit against ICE brought by relatives of the slain House of Death victims, two of whom were U.S. residents.
Lalo has been in federal custody for five years. Now that the case against Lalo's target is over, ICE is trying to deport him back to Mexico.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The criminal informant model spreads to the SEC

The Los Angeles Times reports that the SEC wants to emulate the IRS's bounty program for rewarding criminal informants: SEC chief wants to catch investment scammers in the act. I posted about the IRS program here: IRS expands use of informants. This trend towards courting criminal informants in white collar investigations, as opposed to innocent whistleblowers, is part of a larger systemic culture in which guilt has become completely negotiable. The IRS, for example, used to balk at rewarding offending informants who actually participated in the wrongdoing, but its new rules make it easier to do. To be sure, there are immense informational benefits to using offenders as snitches--they tend to have more information than innocent bystanders. But it squarely raises one of the central compromises that has dogged criminal snitching in drug and mafia investigations, which is that the process can forgive and even reward serious wrongdoers. The IRS and SEC should think carefully about the extent to which they are willing to emulate the world of drug enforcement, in which guilt and punishment have become percevied as commodities, in which cooperation can become a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, and in which law enforcement is too often seen as tolerating crime and even violence from its informants in order to secure information.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Reform efforts in Texas and elsewhere

It is becoming increasingly common to see state commissions devoted to reducing wrongful convictions. These commissions often focus on three key sources of error: mistaken eyewitness testimony, false confessions, and snitches, although there are many additional subjects as well. For example, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice proposed several legislative reforms in this vein--the jailhouse informant corroboration reforms were passed twice by the California legislature but vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. Wisconsin recently established the Wisconsin Criminal Justice Study Commission. In 2002, North Carolina created a special commission to review post-conviction innocence claims.

In this same vein, Texas has established the Tim Cole Advisory Panel to reduce wrongful convictions in the state, and one of its missions is to examine the use of informants. Here's a recent news story about the Commission's visit to Tarrant County, Texas, in which the district attorney maintains a much-praised open-file policy. Here's an excerpt from GritsforBreakfast coverage of the panel's first meeting: Good vibes at Tim Cole Advisory Panel on false convictions.