• 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

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mother Jones article on FBI terrorism informants

Here is an major article--"The Informants"--from Mother Jones and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley on the FBI's use of informants in terrorism investigations. The year-long investigation examined 508 defendants in terrorism cases and found:
Nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by money (operatives can be paid as much as $100,000 per assignment) or the need to work off criminal or immigration violations.
Sting operations resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants. Of that total, 49 defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur--an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.
With three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings.
In many sting cases, key encounters between the informant and the target were not recorded--making it hard for defendants claiming entrapment to prove their case.
Terrorism-related charges are so difficult to beat in court, even when the evidence is thin, that defendants often don't risk a trial.

Friday, September 16, 2011

New York officers sued for failing to protect informant

The mother of a 20-year-old informant is suing two NYPD officers for failing to protect her son who was killed an hour and a half after he tipped off his handler to the location of some guns and drugs. Story here: Mom of slain informant Anthony Velez sues cops for failing to protect him. Such suits are rarely successful--courts have been reluctant to hold police accountable for the fate of their informants, even when the government contributes to the risk. See this post discussing the government's responsibility for the safety of its informants.

Court considers orthodox jewish rule against informing

The Talmudic laws of mesira prohibited Jews from informing against other Jews to non-Jewish authorities. This ancient "no snitching" rule is getting modern attention in the Los Angeles case of Rabbi Moshe Zigelman, an Orthodox jew who is refusing to testify against other Jewish suspects before a grand jury regarding alleged acts of tax fraud and money laudering. Story here: Jewish law goes to court: Mesira meets American justice. The story describes the Talmudic issue this way:
The concept of mesira, which literally means "delivery," dates back to periods when governments often were hostile to Jews and delivering a Jew to the authorities could lead to an injustice and even death. The rules of mesira still carry force within the Orthodox world, owing both to the inviolability of the concept's talmudic origins and the insular nature of many Orthodox communities. But they are also the subject of debate over whether the prohibition applies in a modern democracy that prides itself on due process and civil rights.
This dispute dovetails with a large issue in criminal justice: what happens to the force of criminal law when people believe it is unfair or leads to injustice? Professor Tom Tyler has written extensively about the fact that people are more likely to obey the law if they perceive it to be be fair and carried out through evenhanded and respectful procedures. See, e.g., Tom Tyler & Jeffrey Fagan, Legitimacy and Cooperation: Why Do People Help the Police Fight Crime in Their Communities?, 6 Ohio St. J. of Criminal Law 231 (2008).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

9th Circuit reverses death penalty because of lying informant

Yesterday in Sivak v. Hardison, the Ninth Circuit reversed yet another death sentence based on a lying jailhouse informant and the "State's knowing presentation of perjured inmate testimony." See also this post regarding Maxwell v. Roe. In Sivak, the prosecution used two jailhouse informants--Duane Grierson who described himself as a "chronic liar," and Jimmy Leytham, who falsely testified that he did not expect any rewards for his testimony. The Ninth Circuit concluded that these two unreliable witnesses provided the only direct evidence of Sivak's personal participation in the homicide and that therefore his capital sentencing violated due process.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Two films on domestic terrorism to air on PBS this week

PBS is airing two films--one tonight (Sept. 6) and one on Sept. 13--that address issues of domestic terrorism. Tonight's film -- "Better this World" -- is centrally about the role of political informants and entrapment.
Here are the official descriptions:
Better This World is the story of Bradley Crowder and David McKay, who were accused of intending to firebomb the 2008 Republican National Convention, is a dramatic tale of idealism, loyalty, crime and betrayal. The film follows the radicalization of these boyhood friends from Midland, Texas, under the tutelage of revolutionary activist Brandon Darby. The results: eight homemade bombs, multiple domestic terrorism charges and a high-stakes entrapment defense hinging on the actions of a controversial FBI informant. Better This World goes to the heart of the war on terror and its impact on civil liberties and political dissent in post-9/11 America. (90 minutes)
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front explores two of America's most pressing issues — environmentalism and terrorism — by lifting the veil on a radical environmental group the FBI calls America's "number one domestic terrorism threat." Daniel McGowan, a former member of the Earth Liberation Front, faces life in prison for two multimillion-dollar arsons against Oregon timber companies. What turned this working-class kid from Queens into an eco-warrior? Marshall Curry (Oscar®-nominated Street Fight, POV 2005) provides a nuanced and provocative account that is part coming-of-age story, part cautionary tale and part cops-and-robbers thriller. A co-production of ITVS. Winner of Best Documentary Editing Award, 2011 Sundance Film Festival. (90 minutes)
You can view the trailers here and here.