• 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

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Jack Abramoff: classic repeat offender informant

Remember Jack Abramoff, the corrupt lobbyist who defrauded Indian tribes of millions and used the money to bribe members of Congress and White House officials?  In 2008 he was sentenced to four years of incarceration for multiple offenses, decades less than he might have received, in exchange for his cooperation.  Now Abramoff is headed back to prison for . . .  corrupt lobbying.  Abramoff joins a long line of repeat offender informants who commit serious crimes, cooperate in exchange for leniency, and then continue committing those very same offenses.  It is one of the costs of running the criminal system as a marketplace in which guilt and information can be so easily and routinely traded: we send the message that informants can earn impunity, and that they can work off even the most serious crimes if they are useful enough to the government.  I worried about the Abramoff case back in 2009 here.  As I wrote back then, "this is the perennial dilemma with snitches: it is very hard to know whether we are actually getting more security and justice by letting them off the hook, or whether we too easily forgive serious wrongdoing in the name of cooperation."

Friday, June 19, 2020

Recordings of police who helped informants sell drugs

Eye-popping series of articles on whistleblowing Officer Murashea Bovell. Bovell recorded fellow Officer John Campo who admitted that he helped an informant continue to sell drugs in exchange for help arresting low-level buyers. This is exactly backwards: protecting big fish dealers who turn in their little fish users.  From the article: 

    "Campo's claim that he personally safeguarded the drug dealer’s bundle of crack was made in one of several phone calls secretly recorded by Bovell between 2017 and this year. In that and another recording, Campo claimed that members of the department’s narcotics unit allowed favored drug dealers to sell with impunity, get deliveries, and control territory. In exchange, he said, the dealers, serving as confidential informants, gave them information leading to the arrests of their own low-level clients."

This is also an example of how informant use involves tolerating and perpetuating all sorts of other crime, including domestic violence.  According to the article, the informant who was permitted to continue dealing drugs "has racked up a string of convictions for choking, domestic violence, assault, contempt, and harassment, earning him several stints in prison and prompting courts to issue protection orders."  Again from the article:

    "Lawrence Mottola, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, said police should be very cautious about using informants involved in domestic violence. 'It’s natural to feel that you’re emboldened by this because you have the backing of the police and they’re going to help you if you get stuck in a situation,' he said. 'It’s potentially very dangerous for everyone in that household or in that relationship. And domestic violence cases are already extremely dangerous.'"

Monday, June 1, 2020

How police turn teens into informants

Check out this interview with Nick Taiber, former City Council member in Cedar Falls, Iowa, who became an drug informant when he was a teenager, and Luke Hunt, former FBI agent and now professor.  Taiber describes how police pressured him at age 17 to become an informant after a car accident.  Hunt says "What’s most troubling to me is a very common scenario in which the police compel an informant to do certain operational acts because they have a tremendous amount of power and leverage over the person." More here from Slate: How Police Turn Teens Into Informants

The past few years have seen new attention to the youth informant phenomenon.  Sarah Stillman's tour-de-force article The Throwaways came out in the New Yorker in 2012; since then there have been numerous media stories regarding college students and other young people pressured into become informants, often with terrible consequences for them and their families.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Jailhouse snitch exoneration in Detroit

Ramon Ward was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1994 based on the testimony of two jailhouse informants and sentenced to life in prison. Twenty-five years later, the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office in Detroit moved to vacate his conviction and he was released in February of this year.  Story from The New Republic here: He Was Wrongly Imprisoned for 25 Years. It Wasn’t DNA Evidence That Got Him Out.

Of particular note, Ward's wrongful conviction was secured in part because Detroit police went around the prosecutor's office to obtain benefits for their informants directly from the judge.  As one prosecutor actually observed during Ward's trial, “promises of leniency are made to these snitches without approval—or prior knowledge—which exceeds police authority and violates our policies.” That same prosecutor worried about wrongful conviction: “I have been told," he wrote, "that snitches do lie about overhearing confessions and fabricate admissions in order to obtain police favors or obtain the deals they promised.” 

Ward was not alone: his wrongful conviction was part of a pattern of Detroit police practices in the 1990's.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Connecticut Supreme Court issues decision on informant experts

The Connecticut Supreme Court has decided that informant experts like myself are admissible when they can provide specialized information to jurors about informant unreliability, namely, information that jurors would not otherwise know based on common sense or from the popular culture or general media.  The Supreme Court upheld the exclusion of my testimony in this particular case, but noted that such testimony is not per se inadmissible, and it imagined other scenarios in which expert testimony might be admitted. The 2019 case, State v. Leniart, overturned this 2016 decision, in which the Connecticut Court of Appeals held that the trial judge made a mistake in preventing me from testifying before the jury.

I explain what the Leniart decision means in more detail in this piece for The Appeal: Why Juries Need Expert Help Assessing Jailhouse Informants.  In particular, I explain why jurors are unlikely to understand the full scope of informant practices, fabrications, and motivations to lie, and therefore would be helped by hearing expert testimony:

"Informants are highly motivated to give persuasive, believable testimony in exchange for their own freedom. They can also receive money, drugs, sex, food, and phone privileges when they cooperate with jail officials. Some scour the newspapers, pay other inmates for information, or get family members to pull court records so that they can come up with incriminating testimony against their cellmates. Some jurors may already know about these sorts of practices; many will not."

Eye-opening series on jailhouse informants in ProPublica/NYT

Pamela Colloff has written this extraordinary investigative series into the government's use of jailhouse informants. She zeroes in on Paul Skalnik, a prolific and stunningly unreliable informant who escaped punishment for many of his own crimes, including child molestation.  The first piece is entitled How This Con Man’s Wild Testimony Sent Dozens to Jail, and 4 to Death Row, and was jointly published by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine. Among the many people Skalnik sent to jail is James Dailey whom many believe to be innocent: Dailey is currently on death row.  From the article:

   "In jail, it is widely understood that helping prosecutors and the police can earn extraordinary benefits, from reduced sentences to dismissed charges. By the time Dailey’s trial began the following summer in Clearwater, in June 1987, no fewer than three inmates had come forward claiming to have heard Dailey confess to the killing. The first two worked in the jail’s law library, where they professed to have heard Dailey say about the murder, “I’m the one that did it.” They also told the jury of ferrying several handwritten notes between Dailey and Pearcy; in the letters shown to the jury, Dailey appeared eager to appease his co-defendant, whom prosecutors planned to put on the stand. But the two jailhouse informants were eclipsed by a third inmate, who had contacted Halliday to say that he had some information. He told a much more damning story — one that placed Dailey at the scene of the crime and put the knife in his hand. It was exactly what prosecutors needed.  That witness was Paul Skalnik, a familiar figure around the Pinellas County Courthouse. He had appeared before the court numerous times as a jailhouse informant and was skilled at providing the sort of incendiary details that brought a defendant’s guilt into sudden, terrible focus."

Colloff writes more about the Dailey case here: A Liar Put Him on Death Row. His Co-Defendant Could Help Set Him Free. Why Won’t He?

Japan considers snitching

Japan is introducing American-style plea bargaining in which defendants can trade information about others in exchange for leniency.  Some are concerned about the risks of snitching in general, and of wrongful convictions in particular.  The law is more limited than the U.S. version, and only permits certain kinds of deals and only for certain kinds of crimes.  From the Japan Times:

"Unlike the U.S. plea bargaining system, admitting to a crime does not warrant a deal with prosecutors in Japan. The new system, introduced in a revision to the criminal procedure law, allows suspects in such crimes as bribery, embezzlement, tax fraud and drug smuggling to negotiate with prosecutors. The bargaining only applies to crimes listed in the law, with murder and assault off-limits."

Bulk arrests and convictions based on unreliable informants

This story from Tennessee reminded me of the high profile snitch debacle in Hearne, Texas in which a confidential informant working for the local drug task force set up dozens of innocent African Americans.  Similarly, in Tracy City, Tennessee, the city and the police department are being sued by an innocent couple who--along with 29 other people--were set up by an unsupervised drug informant.  Here is an excerpt from the story:

"Tina Prater walked into the police station with a reputation as a drug addict and a con artist. She walked out with a tape recorder, some cash and a mission: help the police chief arrest anyone whose name made it onto their list. Prater, 47, has admitted in a sworn affidavit that she framed people while working as a confidential informant for the Tracy City Police Department in 2017. She recruited imposters to act as other people, recorded audio of purported drug deals and turned the tapes over to Chief Charlie Wilder, who oversees just four officers in one of Tennessee's poorest and most drug-addicted counties."

And here is another story just like these two, in which a Florida drug informant admitted that she set up innocent people by fabricating drug deals: she did it in exchange for money, a home, and custody of her children.