Thursday, June 16, 2011

Omaha murder trial sheds light on FBI criminal informants

One informant, Jorge Palacios, was a gang member suspected in a Los Angeles murder, and accused, although never charged, in the rape of a 13-year-old girl. The FBI paid him more than $300,000 over five years to help with drug investigations. The other informant, Cesar Sanchez, was caught dealing drugs. In exchange for allowing his auto shop to be used as the site of drug deals for the FBI to monitor, he earned between $50,000 and $100,000 and avoided deportation. This glimpse of the kinds of deals that the government strikes with criminal informants was on display in Omaha last week in the murder trial of Robert Nave, accused of killing Sanchez. The story, FBI tells of informant shooting, also reveals how law enforcement can be reluctant to probe the criminal behavior of their informants:
FBI agent Greg Beninato, who was Palacios' handler in Omaha, testified that the FBI knew that Palacios was the suspected driver and accomplice in the 2004 drive-by shooting of a rival gang member in Los Angeles, a charge for which he was recently arrested. Beninato also acknowledged that agents had heard accusations that Palacios may have been involved in the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl, though no charges were brought. At one point, Riley [the defense attorney] asked Beninato whether he questioned Palacios about the two cases in order to decide whether to continue using him as an informant. "No," Beninato said.
"Why not?" Riley asked.
"It's a fine line between getting involved in someone else's investigation," Beninato said. "I wasn't going to question him without the (investigating agencies') permission or their request to do so."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

St. Petersburg police to review informant policies after officer scandal

Police have nearly unfettered discretion when creating and handling informants. That authority is coming under scrutiny in St. Petersburg, Florida, after the FBI arrested Detective Anthony Foster for extorting thousands of dollars in cash and goods from his informant. Story here: St. Petersburg police to re-evaluate policy on confidential informants:
The FBI's criminal complaint against Foster depicts a detective with near unlimited discretion in his dealings with an informant. Foster texted and called the informer to demand payments in cash or gifts, such as a widescreen TV, Nike shoes and groceries. The FBI alleges Foster made clear in recorded conversations that, in exchange, he would get a reduced sentence for the informant, who had been arrested on a grand theft charge in Hernando County. . . .
The criminal complaint against Foster suggests that there are either few regulations in place or that they aren't always followed. For example, in Foster's effort to convince the assistant state attorney that the informant had helped him solve some cases, Foster had his sergeant call to corroborate his informant's value. The supervisor, according to the complaint, told the assistant state attorney that the informer helped in major homicide cases and was "more of a benefit out of jail rather than in jail." Later, the sergeant faxed a list of four major investigations -- including a March 23 murder -- in which the informer assisted. When the FBI showed the informer the list, however, the informer denied assisting in any of those cases.

Reason Magazine special issue on the criminal system

Reason Magazine's July special issue is entitled "Criminal Injustice: Inside America's national disgrace." There is an article on the social costs of incarceration by Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, one on snitching entitled The Guilt Market by me, one on wrongful conviction by Radley Balko, and many others.

Monday, June 13, 2011

New documentary on domestic terrorism at NY and DC film festivals

A new award-winning documentary, "Better this World," is opening at film festivals in New York and Washington D.C. this month. The documentary follows the story of two young men and their relationship with an FBI informant that led to domestic terrorism charges in connection with the violence at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Schedules and ticketing information are below. Here's the synopsis:
The story of Bradley Crowder and David McKay, accused of intending to firebomb the 2008 Republican National Convention, is a tale of idealism, loyalty, crime and betrayal. Better This World follows the radicalization of these boyhood friends from Midland, Texas, under a revolutionary activist. The results: eight homemade bombs, multiple domestic terrorism charges and an entrapment defense hinging on a controversial FBI informant. The film goes to the heart of the war on terror and political dissent in post-9/11 America.
The film will have its New York premiere during the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 18, 19 and 20 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. Screening times: Saturday, June 18 at 6:30 p.m., Sunday, June 19 at 4:00 PM, Monday, June 20 at 4:00 PM. Tickets available here; trailer available here. The film will play in DC at Silverdocs Film Festival on June 22 & 23 in Silver Spring. Info here.