Saturday, December 15, 2012

Jailhouse snitches pay $1000s for information

USA Today ran this indepth story about a pay-for-information scheme in the Atlanta jail, in which federal inmates looking for cooperation credit bought information to pass on to their handlers, passing it off as their own knowledge. Story here: Federal prisoners use snitching for personal gain. The story offers an unusually detailed and extensive look at the ways that inmates and informants can game the system, buying and selling information that prosecutors and investigators then reward them for and rely on. In this black market free-for-all, inmates paid tens of thousands of dollars ($250,000 in one case) for information to lower their sentences, while FBI agents relied on snitches who were passing on second-hand uncorroborated information from the street. It is the fourth such scheme uncovered in Atlanta alone in the last 20 years.

A similar pay-for-information scheme was discovered in a federal prison in Louisiana, after Ann Colomb and her three sons were wrongfully convicted based on the testimony of dozens of snitch inmates. See this post: Professional Prison Snitch Ring.

Snitch-based convictions overturned in Washington

A four-year campaign by the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic and the parents of three young men has resulted in the reversal of three snitch-based convictions. Robert Larson, Tyler Gassman, and Paul Statler were freed on Friday after a judge vacated their robbery convictions. The three young men were facing sentences, respectively, of 20, 26, and 42 years. Here's the story: Judge vacates convictions in disputed robbery. Previous posts here: More on the Spokane convictions.

Their convictions were based on the perjured testimony of criminal informant Matthew Dunham, a convicted robber who received a 17-month sentence in exchange for his testimony. Another co-defendant later admitted that he and Dunham had fabricated their testimony against Larson, Gassman and Statler.

This is an important case for a number of reasons. First, it is extraordinarily difficult to challenge convictions after the fact, even where new evidence demonstrates innocence. A judge had previously denied the defendants' motion for a new trial after it was discovered that Dunham had lied, so the fact that the parties persevered and a court ruled in their favor makes this case uncommon.

Second, the case highlights how the lack of financial support for public defense in this country leads to miscarriages of justice. The attorneys representing the Spokane defendants were paid the paltry sum of $1,400 per case for cases that required hundreds of hours of investigation and preparation. Low attorney fees for complex cases are pervasive in many states, and they mean that even skilled well-meaning attorneys do not have the resources to defend such cases properly. For an indepth report on the phenomenon, see this U.S. Department of Justice Report: Contracting for Indigent Defense Services: A Special Report (April 2000).

Finally, it took years of work on the part of the Innocence Project and the families to bring about this reversal. The Statler family's efforts were extraordinary: as a result of their persistence, a Washington state legislator introduced a bill that would reduce the risks of informant use and future wrongful convictions. Such efforts were necessary because the criminal system does not have good internal mechanisms to protect defendants from lying informants--wrongful convictions are difficult to unearth and even harder to fix. As happens all too often, the legal system finally came to the right result in this case only because the families refused to give up.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Federal judge questions fairness of "substantial assistance" rules

The New York Times ran this story about the infamous case of Stephanie George: For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars. Ms. George became a poster child in 1997 for the unfairness of federal mandatory minimum sentencing when she received a lifetime sentence for a half kilo of cocaine that her former boyfriend had hidden in her attic.

Ms. George also became a prime example of how informing, or in federal parlance, providing "substantial assistance" to the government, can turn the justice system upside down. Ms. George's boyfriend--a cocaine dealer and ringleader--and other members of the drug ring received lower sentences than she did because they became informants. Because Ms. George had no information, she couldn't snitch and therefore U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson had no discretion to lower her sentence, a sentence that the judge himself considered draconian and unfair. From the story:
"Stephanie George was not a major participant by any means, but the problem in these cases is that the people who can offer the most help to the government are the most culpable," Judge Vinson said recently. "So they get reduced sentences while the small fry, the little workers who don't have that information, get the mandatory sentences."
Judge Vinson's comment reflects an intentional design feature of federal drug law. Because becoming an informant is the only way a defendant can avoid harsh mandatory minimums, snitching has become pervasive in the federal criminal system.