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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Orange County jailhouse informant scandal goes national

National attention is finally turning to the Orange County fiasco.  The judge has kicked the entire District Attorney's Office off the case, largely because so many prosecutors and sheriffs lied under oath to protect their secret records and unconstitutional practices.  Dean Erwin Chemerinsky has called for an independent inquiry and major reforms; Al Jazeera has revealed secret recordings of the informant's negotiation with sheriffs; Slate's Dahlia Lithwick says the scandal "shows eerie parallels" to other jailhouse informant debacles. Speaking to Slate, Laura Fernandez at Yale Law School concludes that the "massive cover up by both law enforcement and prosecutors...has effectively turned the criminal justice system on its head."

Hopefully all this attention will finally persuade lawmakers that jailhouse informants are a public policy worth regulating properly at the front end, instead of waiting for some intrepid defense attorney or journalist to uncover a disaster.  For jurisdictions that have recently concluded as much, see this post.

Ex-traffickers rewarded for "El Chapo" indictment

In a dynamic reminiscent of the FBI's use of mafia informants, two major drug traffickers were given drastically reduced sentences in exchange for their cooperation against the Mexican Sinaloa cartel.  The two men reportedly smuggled $1.8 billion worth of drugs into Mexico and were facing life sentences; they have been cooperating with the U.S. government for six years.  From the Huffington Post:

"[A] federal prosecutor [] poured praise on Pedro and Margarito Flores, portraying them as among the most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in U.S. history and describing the courage they displayed in gathering evidence against Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and other leaders in Mexico's Sinaloa cartel. With credit for time served awaiting sentencing and for good behavior in prison, the brothers, now 33, could be out in as little as six years."

Informant contradicts Tampa police account of SWAT killing

The Tampa Bay Times reports that a criminal informant has come forward to dispute the police's account of a SWAT team killing.  In Confidential informer blows whistle in fatal Tampa SWAT raid, the Times describes the informant Ronnie Coogle as a 50-year-old addict and long-time offender who often worked as a police informant.  Coogle says that police misrepresented the information he gave them, as that as a result police unnecessarily killed "Jason Westcott, a young man with no criminal convictions whom a SWAT team killed during a drug raid that found just $2 worth of marijuana."  As the Times describes it, it's impossible to know what the truth really is, both because of Coogle's own admitted record of lying to police, and the police's failure to monitor or keep records about Coogle and the case:

"Coogle is nobody's idea of a righteous whistle-blower. The only constant in his story is his own dishonesty; even when he confesses to lying you don't know if he's telling the truth.  Much of what he says can be neither proved nor disproved, in large part because of the Police Department's minimal supervision of his work. But Coogle's allegations against the cops who paid him, and even his own admissions of double-dealing, aren't necessarily what's most disturbing about his account.  Most unsettling of all might be what nobody disputes — that police officers were willing to trust somebody like him in the first place."

Another informant who turned on his handlers in this way was Alex White, the Atlanta informant who blew the lid off the police killing of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston and triggered a federal investigation into Atlanta police practices.  See the New York Times Magazine feature here.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Detroit jailhouse snitch ring

Add Detroit to the list of known jailhouse informant scandals.  This story--Ring of Snitches: How Detroit Police Slapped False Murder Convictions on Young Black Men--details how during the 1990s, numerous informants obtained "lenient sentences as well as food, drugs, sex and special privileges from detectives in the Detroit Police Department's homicide division in return for making statements against dozens of prisoners eventually convicted of murder."  The story is eerily reminiscent of the Los Angeles debacle, as well the ongoing scandal in Orange County.

Denver Post examines costs and benefits of informant use

The Denver Post ran this three-part in depth series on informant use: How police reliance on confidential informants in Colorado carries risk, Some want harsher laws for confidential informants in Colorado, and Colorado gang slaying by ATF informant shows perils of informant use.

The series documents a large number of convictions obtained through informant use, including important evidence against violent gangs.  It also reveals wrongful convictions, an ACLU lawsuit, tens of thousands of dollars paid to informants, and the continuing violent crimes committed by some informants while they were working for the federal government.

Texas considers banning informant testimony in capital cases

Several states are considering new legislation to regulate informant use.  In Texas, HB 564 would ban the use of compensated criminal witnesses in death penalty cases altogether.  The bill provides that the "testimony of an informant or of an alleged accomplice of the defendant is not admissible if the testimony is given in exchange for a grant or promise by the attorney representing the state or by another of immunity from prosecution, reduction of sentence, or any other form of leniency or special treatment."  Full story at The Intercept here.  Radley Balko at the Washington Post calls the bill a "significant first step" in recognizing the inherent unreliability of informants.  As Balko, who has written about informant debacles before, puts it:

"The whole concept of jailhouse informants defies credulity. The very idea that people regularly confess to crimes that could put them in prison for decades or possibly even get them executed to someone they just met in a jail cell and have known for all of a few hours is and has always been preposterous. Not to mention the fact that these are people whose word prosecutors wouldn’t trust under just about any other circumstance."

In North Carolina, HB 700--which did not pass--would have created comprehensive regulation of jailhouse informants, including corroboration requirements, enhanced discovery, jury instructions, and data collection.  Story here.  An interesting feature of this bill was that it would have created a "rebuttable presumption of inadmissibility," placing the burden on the government to show that these risky witnesses should nevertheless be permitted to testify.