• 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

Friday, June 25, 2010

Federal witness killed after lawyer allegedly leaks his name

The cycle of failure continues in Baltimore: last year an FBI drug informant was killed, this year a woman who authorities believe witnessed his murder is being charged with perjury and faces 30 years in prison for refusing to testify about it: Baltimore Sun story here. Kareem Guest was killed after a lawyer allegedly violated an agreement to keep Guest's cooperation confidential. It's worth noting that local media initially dismissed Guest's murder as a routine street killing. As the Sun writes:
Guest, 31, was shot repeatedly in the head and chest on Sept. 20, 2009. In one of those familiar bloody Baltimore weekends, he was one of 13 people shot over two days — one more name on a burgeoning list noting the violence but saying virtually nothing of the circumstances. City police and the news media initially dismissed Guest as a routine victim, a man on probation for drugs, leaving the impression that he was killed, like many others, in some sort of petty dispute over heroin. The FBI knew better.
In cities like Baltimore, it is impossible to know how much street violence is associated with informants--crimes against them as well as crimes committed by them. That's why I've argued that law enforcement agencies should start keeping track of and make public the extent to which urban crime is directly connected to snitching policies and practices.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Important pending legislation in New York

Legislation is pending before the New York Senate that would reduce the occurences of wrongful conviction. Recommended by the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Wrongful Conviction, the six bills address, among other things, criminal informants, eye witness testimony, recording interrogations, and improved discovery. Here are links to the legislation and the NYSB press release.

The proposed informant legislation would accomplish a number of important things. First, it would require corroboration before any criminal informant testimony could be used in court. An informant is defined as any person "who is not an accomplice and who agrees to provide testimony or evidence on an understanding that he or she will receive a favorable disposition or resolution of pending or possible criminal charges, financial benefit not associated with usual witness appearance, or other substantial benefit for himself or another person." This is an appropriate definition--it captures all informants who have an incentive to lie in order to gain a benefit, while excluding regular civilian witnesses, whistleblowers, and victims. The bill would also improve the discovery of information about informants, preserve informant anonymity if there are safety or other good reasons, and require a special instruction reminding jurors that the informant witness is receiving a benefit and that therefore his testimony should be viewed with caution. The legislation is covered today in an AP story about Steve Barnes who spent 20 years in prison based on the fabricated testimony of a criminal informant--story available here: Steve Barnes lost 20 years to lying jailhouse snitch: proposed law would keep liars from court.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Three will set you free"

A carwash attendant explained to me that this was the saying in his old neighborhood (he wouldn't say where he was from). It means that if you are charged with a felony but can give the government information about three other people, they will "set you free."

Monday, June 14, 2010

More developments in Philly's struggle with witness intimidation

An interesting story over the weekend in the Philadelphia Inquirer on increased protections for witnesses in light of Philadelphia's witness intimidation crisis. The city is ramping up prosecutions against intimidators, monitoring courtrooms more closely, and looking for more resources to protect witnesses. These are all important developments. See earlier post on pending federal legislation. The City Council is also considering a bill to impose fines of $2000 on intimidators--perhaps more a symbolic step than anything else. As I've written elsewhere, residents in high crime neighborhoods need to feel protected by the police, not only in connection with specific cases in which they might be witnesses but more generally. Philadelphia renewed commitment to witness protection could be a good first step in this direction.

Friday, June 11, 2010

At least five imprisoned based on lying drug informant

Watch this video news clip from WINK-TV News (an ABC affiliate) in Florida: "Convicted felon: lying confidential informant sent me to prison." The informant, Shakira Redding, admitted that she set up innocent people by fabricating drug deals: she'd buy drugs in advance and hide them on her body to provide to the drug task force as "evidence" after the alleged deals. The government had promised her money, a home, and custody of her children if she provided incriminating evidence against others. Romill Blandin was one of Redding's innocent targets who spent 20 months in prison after Redding made a video of a man in a car that she claimed was Blandin, and then picked Blandin out of a line-up. Tellingly, Blandin never saw the video before he pled guilty--his public defender told him that he couldn't see it unless he went to trial and that his criminal record made it likely that the jury would convict him. He chose to plead guilty instead of risking a longer sentence.

This story is an almost exact replay of the Hearne, Texas debacle in which a confidential informant working for the local drug task force set up dozens of innocent African Americans. The Hearne case was the subject of the movie "American Violet," and an ACLU lawsuit. Here's the description from the book's introduction:
In the economically troubled town of Hearne, Texas, 27-year-old criminal informant Derrick Megress wreaked havoc. In November, 2000, a federally-funded drug task force swept through the town arresting twenty-eight people, mostly residents of the Columbus Village public housing project. Megress, a suicidal former drug dealer on probation facing new burglary charges, had cut a deal with the local prosecutor. If he produced at least 20 arrests, Megress's new charges would be dropped. He'd also earn $100 for every person he helped bust. One of his innocent victims was waitress Regina Kelly, mother of four, who steadfastly refused to plead guilty and take a deal for probation even as she sat in jail for weeks. Another target, Detra Tindle, was actually in the hospital giving birth at the time that Megress alleged that she had sold him drugs. A lie detector test finally revealed that Megress had lied--mixing flour and baking soda with small amounts of cocaine to fabricate evidence of drug deals. Charges against the remaining Hearne suspects were dropped, although several had already pleaded guilty.
Such stories are not aberrations; drug task forces are large-scale users of criminal informants in which the risks of fabrication are high. Massachusetts, for example, reports that in 2005-2006 its federally-funded drug taskforces relied on over 2000 confidential informants who made 45 percent of the taskforces' controlled buys.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

MySpace anti-snitch comment treated as threat

An appellate court in Maryland has ruled that a comment on the defendant's girlfriend's MySpace page was properly admitted at his murder trial. The comment read: "Free Boozy!!! Just remember snitches get stitches!! U know who you are!!" Daily Record story here. The comment was proffered by the government to explain why a key witness had failed to identify the defendant at a previous trial. The decision is significant for a number of reasons. For example, it shows how comments made on social networking sites by friends and family may be admissible against defendants. It also elevates common phrases such as "snitches get stitches" and "no snitching" and potentially even rap lyrics to the status of specific threat. For a more general discussion of the use of rap lyrics against defendants, see this post: ""Stop Snitching" rap song on YouTube leads to convictions."

Snitches bolster weak cases

The most egregious cases of informant unreliability occur where an entire case turns on the testimony of a single compensated snitch. The dangers of wrongful conviction in this scenario are so obvious that numerous states have or are considering corroboration requirements. But informant testimony can produce wrongful convictions in another way, and that is by making weak cases look stronger than they are. For example, Florida Today ran a story last week on the probable innocence of Gary Bennett. Bennett was convicted based on a now-discredited dog sniff expert and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch. Similarly, in the high profile case of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Texas man was convicted and executed for arson based on a combination of poor forensic science and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who later recanted. See previous post.

Such cases are not accidents. Jailhouse snitches are infamous for fabricating information about homicide and other high-profile cases, and offering the information to law enforcement without any solicitations or promises on the part of the government. In other words, the very existence of the case generates the bad evidence because of the general expectation in the offender population that such information will eventually be rewarded. This snitch testimony, however, makes the original case look stronger than it really is. This problem cannot be solved by corroboration requirements, since the informant's information is automatically "corroborated" by the pre-existing weak evidence. Yet another reason to restrict the use of jailhouse informant testimony.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Attorney General Holder memo on prosecutorial charging decisions

Thanks to Sentencing Law and Policy for making Attorney General Eric Holder's new charging policy memo available here. The blog discusses reactions to Holder's new guidelines, which are described as providing more flexibility to prosecutors not to argue for mandatory minimum sentences. Of note for this blog's purposes, Holder's memo reiterates DOJ's practice of considering a defendant's cooperation during the initial charging decision. As the memo states: "In all cases, the charges should fairly represent the defendant's criminal conduct, and due consideration should be given to the defendant's substantial assistance in an investigation or prosecution." As I've argued elsewhere, this practice of charge reduction for cooperation is central to the pervasiveness and secrecy of the snitching process: a cooperating suspect will be charged differently, or perhaps not at all, in ways that may leave no paper trail. The U.S. Sentencing Commission keeps track of cooperation departures at sentencing, but charging decisions take place long before a defendant ever comes before a judge to be sentenced.

One consequence of this practice is that cooperation has become a large source of sentencing disparity, the very problem the Sentencing Guidelines were designed to alleviate. For example, an article in the June edition of Justice Quarterly concludes that substantial assistance downward departures are a significant source of inter-judge disparity: "the sentencing discounts that similarly situated defendants get for providing substantial assistance vary upon the judge handling the case," making substantial assistance departure decisions "a wellspring of sentencing disparity." Amy Anderson & Cassia Spohn, Lawlessness in the Federal Sentencing Process: A Test for Uniformity and Consistency in Sentence Outcomes, 27 Justice Quarterly 362 (2010). An earlier Sentencing Commission study found that prosecutorial offices reward cooperation very differently as well. In other words, the uniformity offered by determinate sentencing schemes--treating similarly situated offenders similarly-- does not cure the significant disparities introduced by unregulated cooperation.