Recent Blog Posts

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Experiments on the impact of inducements

Scholars at the University of Arizona Law School have published a paper entitled "Incentives, Lies and Disclosure," 20 U. Pa. J. Con L. 33 (2018).  They conduct a number of behavioral experiments and conclude that incentivized witnesses like jailhouse informants are more likely to lie, and that even when potential jurors are told about the incentives, they still believe the witness.  Here is the abstract:  

Prosecutors can force witnesses to testify and use perjury prosecutions to hold them to the provable truth. More controversially, prosecutors also offer witnesses inducements for favorable testimony, including leniency, immunity, and even cash. This ubiquitous behavior would be illegal as witness bribery, except for a longstanding tradition of sovereigns using this power, which legal doctrine now reflects. A causal analysis shows that even if prosecutors use this power only in good faith, these inducements undermine the epistemic value of witness testimony. 

Due process requires, and legal doctrine assumes, that when such inducements are disclosed to the jury, they will discount the witness testimony accordingly. However, juries’ success in doing so is an empirical question. We conducted three randomized experiments with 1,000 human subjects in roles of witnesses and jurors deciding vignettes based on real cases. We find that incentives have large effects on witnesses, allowing prosecutors to routinely procure favorable testimony regardless of its truth. Yet, disclosure has no detectable effects on either witnesses or jurors. 

We discuss two potential reforms. First, courts could borrow from the practice with expert witnesses and use the current rules of evidence to conduct Daubert-like pretrial screening of incentivized witnesses for reliability. We frame the appropriate counterfactual question about whether the incentives would cause a witness to give the same testimony even if it were false. Second, we present the novel suggestion that prosecutors could decide whether to offer benefits to a witness based on whether she will testify to material information, but without knowing whether the information is favorable to the Government. These mechanisms may preserve the value of incentives to produce information, while minimizing false testimony.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Recordings of FBI informant recruiting tactics

The Intercept has published a story of a man who documented and recorded nearly two years of efforts by the FBI to pressure him into becoming an informant. Story and recordings here: Recordings Capture Brutal FBI Tactics to Recruit a Potential Informant.  The story is by Trevor Aaronson, author of "The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism."

Friday, September 29, 2017

States take a fresh look at snitching

Here's an op-ed I wrote for The Crime Report chronicling the latest wave of state legislative reform.  Some highlights:

-       Texas passed comprehensive reform requiring prosecutors to track and disclose their informants’ criminal history, past testimony, and benefits.  The New York Times called it “the most comprehensive effort yet to rein in the dangers of transactional snitching.” 

-       Andrew’s Law in North Dakota prohibits campus police from using students as informants.  State police may only use informants with a written agreement.  Of particular note, Andrew’s Law bans the use of child informants under the age of 16, one of very few states to do so.

-       Illinois came very close to re-instituting reliability hearings.  The state previously required them in capital cases: now that Illinois no longer has the death penalty this bill will require pretrial hearings for all jailhouse informants.

-       Montana’s Senate Bill 249 introduced comprehensive legislation that would require, among other things, electronic recording of informant statements, greater prosecutorial disclosure, pretrial reliability hearings, and cautionary jury instructions.

-       Washington recently considered two bills. One from 2016 would have required pretrial reliability hearings in all informant cases.  The other would have required enhanced prosecutorial disclosure.  Barry Scheck, founder and director of the Innocence Project, wrote that the Washington legislation was a “key advance” and that it represented an opportunity to “ensure that the strongest protections are in place for the innocent.”

Friday, September 22, 2017

Insight into FBI informant criminal activity

The FBI reports to the Department of Justice the total "Otherwise Illegal Activity" (OIA) that it authorizes its informants to engage in. In its most recent report due to an error, some of that data was missing--the total was down from 5,261 crimes to 381. The FBI explains that “When the FBI submitted 2016 data to the Justice Department regarding the Confidential Human Source Program one tier of data accidentally was not submitted." Presumably the FBI omitted Tier 2 crimes--the less serious tier. Here's the story which was featured on the Marshall Project's Opening Statement: FBI Severely Underreported How Many Times It Authorized Informants to Break the Law [Updated]

The 2017 Confidential Informant Accountability Act would expand the FBI's reporting requirement. The FBI (and all other federal investigative agencies) would have to report to Congress, not just DOJ. And it would have to report not only the crimes it authorized its informants to commit, but all the serious crimes that it has reason to believe that its informants committed while working for the agency.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Texas passes strong new informant disclosure law

At the recommendation of the Timothy Cole Commission, Texas has passed strong new legislation requiring the government to collect a range of data on its jailhouse informants, including prior testimony and benefits, and to turn that data over to the defense.  The bill is here.

And here is the New York Times Editorial Board's glowing review of the new law, Texas Cracks Down on the Market for Jailhouse Snitches, calling it "the most comprehensive effort yet to rein in the dangers of transactional snitching." The Times also notes, however, that prosecutors are supposed to turn over such evidence anyway and that further reforms are called for, such as reliability hearings and barring informants in capital cases.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Prosecutor in Willingham case tried for ethics violation, and acquitted

Originally posted May 3:  In a rare display of potential discipline, the prosecutor who misused a jailhouse informant against Cameron Todd Willingham--John Jackson--is on trial for ethics violations.  "Specifically, the state’s lawyers contend that Jackson made a deal with a jailhouse snitch who agreed to testify against Willingham and then hid that deal from Willingham’s defense attorneys — a clear violation of both law and ethics. They say that Jackson took extraordinary measures over the next two decades to conceal his deceitful actions." Here is the story from The Intercept.

Update May 13: The jury acquitted prosecutor John Jackson.  From The Marshall Project: "By an 11-to-1 vote, a Navarro County jury rejected claims by the State Bar of Texas that Jackson made false statements, concealed evidence favorable to Willingham’s defense and obstructed justice."

Barry Scheck, Innocence Project Founder, on informant reform

Washington State is considering legislation that would strengthen the government's obligation to disclose information about its criminal informants.   Barry Scheck, Founder of the Innocence Project, writes about how important this legislation is in Justice can be tainted by the use of informants' testimony.