• SNITCHING: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice
  • U.S. Attorney General's Guidelines on the FBI's Use of Confidential Human Sources
  • Sarah Stillman, The Throwaways, The New Yorker (2012) (article on the use of juvenile informants)

Recent Blog Posts

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On break

Snitching Blog will be on break for the next two weeks

Monday, March 29, 2010


In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the FBI has just released for the first time hundreds of memos regarding its "special file room," in which it has stored for decades information considered too sensitive for its central filing system. As described by the Boston Globe, the special filing system is designed "to restrict access [to information] severely and, in more sinister instances, some experts assert, prevent the Congress and the public from getting their hands on it." The information includes such things as plans to relocate Congress if Washington is attacked, files on high-profile mob figures and their political friends, as well as the FBI's own questionable activities such as spying on domestic political organizations. From the Globe:
Other files on domestic spying that were routed to the special file room involved "black nationalist extremists." There were also files about an "extremely sensitive counterintelligence technique" called snitch-jacketing, which apparently involved the FBI spreading false information that members of a targeted group were government informants in order to sow conflict within their membership.
While "snitch-jacketing" was a new term to me, it's an old concept. An important historical strand of informant use has been the government's creation and deployment of informants to infiltrate and disrupt civilian political activities. I've blogged about this issue here in the context of FBI infiltration of Muslim communities; Gary Marx is the preeminent expert on this subject.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Prison rape

I'm blogging over at Prawfsblawg this month, and just posted the following about the New York Review of Books' excellent essay on prison rape. Link here. The essay describes the data and recommendations that have come out of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), as well as the politics of current reform efforts. For more general information on prison conditions and legal developments, check out Prison Law Blog.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

More on the Spokane convictions

Last month I posted this story about three men convicted of robbery based on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch in Spokane, Washington -- "Another wrongful conviction in the making?" Here's the follow-up story in the Pacific Northwest Inlander -- Justice Served? After another inmate confessed that he and the informant had framed Gassman, Statler and Larson, the defense sought a new trial but the court denied the motion. Since then, various players in the Spokane criminal system have been grappling with whether the convictions were accurate. From the article:
Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Tucker says he's not very familiar with the facts in the case, besides what he read in The Inlander. And he's not compelled to look any deeper, he says. "I don't think you realize how many calls I get like this. It's not practical. The system is taking care of it," Tucker says. "The further investigation will come from the appellate attorneys. They'll look at it."
Tucker's assumption that "the system" will take care of the problem of lying informants is misplaced. Once an informant testifies, the appellate process does not permit a court to go back and reevaluate his or her credibility--that task is left to the jury. There are also numerous legal roadblocks to challenging a conviction, even one based on shaky evidence, as evidenced by the fact that the defendants in this very case were not granted a new trial despite the new confession. In other words, informants are easy to use to get convictions, but very hard to challenge after the fact. This structural arrangement is one of the main reasons that criminal informants have become such a significant factor in wrongful convictions.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Even jurors were worried about informant reliability

On Friday, a Denver jury convicted Willie Clark in the killing of Denver Bronco Darrent Williams during a drive-by shooting. Much of the case, although not all, was based on the testimony of heavily rewarded criminal informants. Stories here and here. One witness in particular, Daniel "Ponytail" Harris, admitted to being in the car from which the bullets came, and testified that he saw Clark, and only Clark, shoot out the window at the limousine in which Williams was riding. Harris was facing a life sentence for an unrelated federal drug charge, but in exchange for his testimony, he will see that sentence cut down to five years. He will also avoid being prosecuted for the shooting himself. Another witness, gang member Vernone Edwards, will get a decade shaved off his crack-cocaine trafficking sentence. This sort of heavily compensated, self-serving testimony is one of the prime reasons that informant testimony has become such a problematic source of error. Three alternate and released jurors who spoke to reporters after the case was over said they did not believe Harris. One of the lead prosecutors in Harris's drug case candidly explained that prosecutors can only do their best to determine whether such witnesses are telling the truth.

It used to be that informant unreliability issues were litigated, if at all, on habeas, or by volunteer attorneys at innocence projects long after the case was over. Those days are coming to an end. With heightened public and media awareness of the problem, I predict that we will see more cases in which the problem of informant reliability is addressed early on in the process, at trial or on appeal, and not, as so often has happened in the past, as an afterthought or not at all.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The tangled web of informant and handler

While we may never know what actually happened between DEA Agent Lee Lucas and his informant Jerrell Bray--a hazardous partnership that rocked Cleveland for the last few years-- their story reveals the many dangers that arise when law enforcement hitches its wagon to criminal snitches. In 2007, the Cleveland Plain Dealer began extensive reporting on allegations that Bray, a convicted killer and drug dealer, was using his relationship to the DEA to frame rivals and innocent people and that Agent Lucas had lied to make cases. Eventually, over a dozen convictions were reversed, including those of people who pleaded guilty. Story here. Bray was convicted of perjury and is currently serving 14 years; Agent Lucas was prosecuted for perjury and obstruction of justice. Last month, a jury acquitted Agent Lucas of all 18 charges. Story here. Law enforcement agents are rarely prosecuted for relying on bad informants, so the Plain Dealer's coverage offers a rare glimpse into the ways that an informant can shape--or deform--official decisions.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Guest blogging at the Washington Post

I recently posted this entry on the Washington Post Political Bookworm blog. From the blog's introduction:
Criminal informants are a powerful weapon in law enforcement. Snitches typically provide incriminating information about someone in exchange for lighter treatment for themselves. But there is a dark side to the popular practice. In "Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice," published by New York University Press, Alexandra Natapoff explores the hidden, unregulated tradeoffs that officials increasingly accept. Natapoff, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, isn't seeking a ban on plea bargaining but she wants to raise public awareness of the practice's disturbing results and encourage improvements.

Zocalo video interview

Here's a link to a video interview I did with Zocalo. Zocalo is a wonderful cultural and civic organization that presents speakers, videos, conferences, and other forms of discussion around key public issues. From their website:
Zocalo takes on compelling ideas from a wide range of fields-politics, governance, health, economics, technology, foreign policy, arts, science and beyond. Believing that over-specialization and narrowcasting undermine the public square, Zocalo seeks to restore broad-mindedness to civic and intellectual life and to welcome a new, young and diverse generation to the conversation. Since 2003, Zocalo has roamed around Los Angeles, to Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and as far as Shanghai, Berlin and Guadalajara. We have featured over 800 thinkers and doers online and on the ground, using our live events to build community and feed the open, accessible, non-partisan spirit of our magazine.