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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"The Prosecutor and the Snitch"

In this extensive review of the infamous Cameron Todd Willingham case, the Marshall Project zeroes in on the role of the jailhouse informant, Johnny Webb, and the prosecutor who covered up his rewards.  Story here: The Prosecutor and the Snitch: Did Texas execute an innocent man?  According to the article, Webb "lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line."

In post-trial interviews, Webb said that the prosecutor approached him about testifying:

"[H]e asked Jackson, “What’s going to be my deal?” and Jackson said, “If you help me, that robbery will disappear ... even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later.”  ...“He says, ‘Your story doesn't have to match exactly... He says, ‘I want you to just say he put fires in the corners. I need you to be able to say that so we can convict him, otherwise we’re going to have a murderer running our streets.’ ” ...  “He [Jackson] had me believing 100 percent this dude was guilty — that’s why I testified,” Webb said. “The perks — they was willing to do anything to help me. No one has ever done that, so why wouldn’t I help them?” In fact, Webb said, Willingham “never told me nothing.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

DEA found liable for failing to protect its informant

In an unusual case, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims has held the DEA liable for over $1 million in damages for failing to protect its informant, the "Princess."  The Court held that the DEA "breached an implied-in-fact contract and its duty of good faith and fair dealing" when it compromised the informant's identity which led to her kidnapping and the worsening of a severe medical condition.   Opinion here.

Professor Stephen Carter wrote about the case in this article:  How the DEA Ditched an Informant, and he writes: "It was the DEA's repeated bungling that essentially blew her cover. Then, after her release, she developed a chronic medical condition that would require increasingly expensive care. The DEA refused to help out. She therefore brought an action claiming breach of contract. In particular, she argued that the DEA, in hiring her as an informant, had agreed to protect her.  It broke that promise."

It's an important decision because courts often find that the government does not have a duty to protect its informants.  See this post.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Economist on the power of informants

Today The Economist published The kings of the courtroom, exploring how the use of informants helps make "American prosecutors more power than ever before."  The article covers examples ranging from Cameron Todd Willingham, who was wrongfully executed for arson based in part on a jailhouse snitch, to the Enron prosecutions which involved over 100 potentially cooperating unindicted co-conspirators.  From the piece:

     "The same threats and incentives that push the innocent to plead guilty also drive many suspects to testify against others. Deals with “co-operating witnesses”, once rare, have grown common. In federal cases an estimated 25-30% of defendants offer some form of co-operation, and around half of those receive some credit for it. The proportion is double that in drug cases. Most federal cases are resolved using the actual or anticipated testimony of co-operating defendants. 
     Co-operator testimony often sways juries because snitches are seen as having first-hand knowledge of the pattern of criminal activity. But snitches hoping to avoid draconian jail terms may sometimes be tempted to compose rather than merely to sing."