April 01, 2014

New evidence in Willingham case highlights role of informant

Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed for the arson deaths of his three children based on shoddy forensic expertise and the testimony of a single jailhouse snitch. See this New Yorker article. Now the Innocence Project has uncovered further evidence that the prosecutor in the case--now a judge--lied about the informant's deal. Here's the story: New Evidence Suggests Cameron Todd Willingham Prosecutor Deceived Board of Pardons and Paroles About Informant Testimony in Opposition to Stay of Execution.

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November 24, 2013

Exoneration in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism just published this story--When lies lead to wrongful convictions--about Sammy Hadaway, a psychologically damaged defendant who was pressured during a police interrogation into wrongfully confessing and incriminating his friend Chaunte Ott. Ott was later exonerated of the wrongful rape and murder charges after serving 12 years. From the story:

Four years after Ott was convicted, attorneys at the Wisconsin Innocence Project began working on his case. The Innocence Project, a University of Wisconsin Law School program that investigates allegations of wrongful convictions, called for DNA testing of the semen collected from [the victim's] body. The DNA evidence, which excluded both Ott and Hadaway as possible contributors, matched a convicted serial killer named Walter Ellis who strangled and killed at least seven women between 1986 and 2007.

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September 24, 2013

Lowell, Mass. police sued for informant misuse

The city of Lowell, MA, is being sued, along with Officer Thomas Lafferty, for permitting the longterm misuse of informants who allegedly planted drugs on innocent people. Stories from the Boston Globe and the Lowell Sun here, here and here. Lowell has been under scrutiny for its informant policies: earlier this year a prosecutorial review cleared Officer Lafferty of wrongdoing in connection with his informant practices.

Plaintiffs harmed by informants often have a difficult time holding government actors and agencies responsible in court, since it can be hard to show that the government authorized the informants' bad behavior. For a prominent counter-example, see Estate of Davis v. U.S., 340 F.Supp.2d 79 (D. Mass. 2004) (describing a variety of legal theories under which the FBI might be held liable for murders committed by their informants Whitey Bulger and Stephen Flemmi). With growing scrutiny of and information about the government-informant relationship, the law in this regard may be due for a change.

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December 15, 2012

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.

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January 09, 2012

Supreme Court begins debating informant unreliability

The Supreme Court released an order today denying certiorari in Cash v. Maxwell, formerly Maxwell v. Roe, an important Ninth Circuit decision discussed in this previous post. Usually the Court does not explain cert denials, but this case generated a heated debate between Justice Sotomayor, who supported the denial, and Justices Scalia and Alito who thought the Ninth Circuit's decision should have been overturned. See SCOTUSblog post here, and L.A. Times story here.

Today's decision is important for a number of reasons. First, it shows that the Justices have joined numerous state and federal legislators in recognizing the problem of informant unreliability. Informant-based wrongful convictions are increasingly frequent in the courts and in the news, and many states have taken up the issue. See Legislation Section of the main website. Although the Court did not answer the question today, it's a sign of the times that the Justices are arguing about it.


Maxwell also shows how the legal debate over informant use is becoming less about procedure and more about substantive questions of reliability and innocence. Until recently, most informant litigation has been a fight over disclosure: the information that the government must disclose regarding its use of compensated criminal witnesses. The Maxwell case and the Sotomayor/Scalia debate squarely confront the substantive question of unreliability: how unreliable can compensated criminal witnesses be before the law restricts their use? Or to put it another way, how high is our tolerance for the likelihood of wrongful conviction? Even Justice Scalia concluded that the informant in Maxwell's case was a "habitual liar," and that there were reasons "to think it likely that [he] testified falsely" at Maxwell's trial. The Ninth Circuit took the next step, holding that the Due Process Clause does not permit such clearly unreliable evidence to be used. As a result of today's cert denial, this holding stands.


Finally, Justice Sotomayor pointed out that the Ninth Circuit relied on "an avalanche of evidence" that the informant in that case was unreliable. The existence of such evidentiary avalanches is a relatively new phenomenon. Thanks to the innocence movement and numerous new studies (see Resources & Scholarship section on the main website), courts and litigators have more evidence than ever before regarding the unreliability of criminal informants. These new data will surely change how courts consider such questions in the future.

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October 03, 2011

Not "simply a thank-you": another snitch-based exoneration in Los Angeles

After serving 17 years in prison for murder, Obie Anthony was exonerated last Friday. Anthony was represented by the Northern California Innocence Project and the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent. The judge found that the key witness--a pimp who received leniency as a result of his testimony against Anthony--lied, and that the government failed to disclose its deal with the informant. See L.A. Times story: Judge overturns murder conviction in 1994 slaying, and press release. Although the informant was promised a lighter sentence for testifying, prosecutor Scott Collins denied there was a deal. "It was not a deal in exchange for testimony," he said. "It was simply a thank-you for cooperating with the LAPD in a homicide investigation." Whether we label such arrangements a "thank you," deal, benefit, or something else, the fact remains that informants can reasonably expect to be rewarded for their testimony and are therefore incentivized to lie in ways that other witnesses are not.

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January 12, 2011

Challenge to Texas death penalty

In an historic and rare event, a Texas judge last month began a hearing on the constitutionality of the death penalty, entertaining arguments that the system is so prone to erroneous conviction that it might violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The defense called numerous experts from around the country (including me) to testify on various aspects of the death penalty including: error rates, the use of unreliable eyewitness testimony, junk science and forensic evidence, informants, discovery, death-qualified juries, and race. Story and witness list here: Hearing on Constitutionality of Texas Death Penalty. At the government's request, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the hearing after two days and the parties are now briefing matters. For additional information, see Fountain's Pen blog: Appeals court orders stay in death penalty hearing.

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December 01, 2010

Ninth Circuit overturns murder conviction based on perjured informant testimony

Yesterday, in Maxwell v. Roe, the Ninth Circuit decided that Bobby Joe Maxwell's due process rights were violated in 1984 when the government used Sidney "the Snitch Professor" Storch as the main witness at his multiple homicide trial. LA Times story here: Appeals Court overturns murder convictions of alleged L.A. serial killer.

This is an important case for a number of reasons. The first is historical: Storch was one of the most infamous jailhouse snitches in the Los Angeles County Jail during the 1980s, a period in which jailhouse snitch fabrication was rampant, numerous wrongful convictions occurred, and which eventually triggered a massive Grand Jury investigation and stringent reforms in Los Angeles.

The factual basis for the decision is also important. Appellate courts rarely conclude as a factual matter that a witness such as a jailhouse informant committed perjury, which is one of the reasons it is so difficult to overturn a conviction even after a witness recants. See previous post: In the news-- Recantation. In this case, the Ninth Circuit decided that "it was objectively unreasonable for the Superior Court to find that Storch testified truthfully at the 1984 trial," based on Storch's history as an informant and his other lies at trial. From the opinion:

There is simply too much evidence of Storch's pattern of perjury to conclude otherwise. At the time of Maxwell's trial, Storch was already employing the "booking" formula that he would later teach others and for which he would become famous; the housing records show that Storch had physical proximity to Maxwell; Storch openly admitted that he was in possession of a newspaper article about the murders; the newspaper article itself mentioned all of the specific facts to which Storch testified--namely, that the police had found Maxwell's palm print on a nearby park bench; and, finally, Storch contacted Deputy District Attorney Sterling Norris with the news of his cellmate's spontaneous confession and negotiated his own deal in exchange for his testimony.
In other words, it was just too likely that Storch was lying for the government to use him. As our knowledge of jailhouse informants increases, there may be more informants who fit this too-unreliable-to-testify profile.

Finally, the case has doctrinal significance. The court held that the use of Storch at trial violated Maxwell's due process rights. This was in large part because Storch was the "'make-or-break' witness for the state" and "the centerpiece of the prosecution's case" and therefore his testimony was clearly material to the outcome of the trial. Notably, the court assumed for the sake of argument that the government did not know that Storch was lying -- the due process violation flowed not from any intentional government misconduct, but because "to permit a conviction based on uncorrected false material evidence to stand is a violation of a defendant's due process rights." This is an important rule -- it is not uncommon for defendants to discover post-trial evidence that a key informant witnesses lied--either because of recantations or other impeachment evidence. See for example this post: More on the Spokane convictions. The Maxwell decision suggests that courts may be starting to take such evidence of informant perjury more seriously.

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June 22, 2010

Important pending legislation in New York

Legislation is pending before the New York Senate that would reduce the occurences of wrongful conviction. Recommended by the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Wrongful Conviction, the six bills address, among other things, criminal informants, eye witness testimony, recording interrogations, and improved discovery. Here are links to the legislation and the NYSB press release.

The proposed informant legislation would accomplish a number of important things. First, it would require corroboration before any criminal informant testimony could be used in court. An informant is defined as any person "who is not an accomplice and who agrees to provide testimony or evidence on an understanding that he or she will receive a favorable disposition or resolution of pending or possible criminal charges, financial benefit not associated with usual witness appearance, or other substantial benefit for himself or another person." This is an appropriate definition--it captures all informants who have an incentive to lie in order to gain a benefit, while excluding regular civilian witnesses, whistleblowers, and victims. The bill would also improve the discovery of information about informants, preserve informant anonymity if there are safety or other good reasons, and require a special instruction reminding jurors that the informant witness is receiving a benefit and that therefore his testimony should be viewed with caution. The legislation is covered today in an AP story about Steve Barnes who spent 20 years in prison based on the fabricated testimony of a criminal informant--story available here: Steve Barnes lost 20 years to lying jailhouse snitch: proposed law would keep liars from court.

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June 11, 2010

At least five imprisoned based on lying drug informant

Watch this video news clip from WINK-TV News (an ABC affiliate) in Florida: "Convicted felon: lying confidential informant sent me to prison." The informant, Shakira Redding, admitted that she set up innocent people by fabricating drug deals: she'd buy drugs in advance and hide them on her body to provide to the drug task force as "evidence" after the alleged deals. The government had promised her money, a home, and custody of her children if she provided incriminating evidence against others. Romill Blandin was one of Redding's innocent targets who spent 20 months in prison after Redding made a video of a man in a car that she claimed was Blandin, and then picked Blandin out of a line-up. Tellingly, Blandin never saw the video before he pled guilty--his public defender told him that he couldn't see it unless he went to trial and that his criminal record made it likely that the jury would convict him. He chose to plead guilty instead of risking a longer sentence.

This story is an almost exact replay of the Hearne, Texas debacle in which a confidential informant working for the local drug task force set up dozens of innocent African Americans. The Hearne case was the subject of the movie "American Violet," and an ACLU lawsuit. Here's the description from the book's introduction:

In the economically troubled town of Hearne, Texas, 27-year-old criminal informant Derrick Megress wreaked havoc. In November, 2000, a federally-funded drug task force swept through the town arresting twenty-eight people, mostly residents of the Columbus Village public housing project. Megress, a suicidal former drug dealer on probation facing new burglary charges, had cut a deal with the local prosecutor. If he produced at least 20 arrests, Megress's new charges would be dropped. He'd also earn $100 for every person he helped bust. One of his innocent victims was waitress Regina Kelly, mother of four, who steadfastly refused to plead guilty and take a deal for probation even as she sat in jail for weeks. Another target, Detra Tindle, was actually in the hospital giving birth at the time that Megress alleged that she had sold him drugs. A lie detector test finally revealed that Megress had lied--mixing flour and baking soda with small amounts of cocaine to fabricate evidence of drug deals. Charges against the remaining Hearne suspects were dropped, although several had already pleaded guilty.

Such stories are not aberrations; drug task forces are large-scale users of criminal informants in which the risks of fabrication are high. Massachusetts, for example, reports that in 2005-2006 its federally-funded drug taskforces relied on over 2000 confidential informants who made 45 percent of the taskforces' controlled buys.

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June 08, 2010

Snitches bolster weak cases

The most egregious cases of informant unreliability occur where an entire case turns on the testimony of a single compensated snitch. The dangers of wrongful conviction in this scenario are so obvious that numerous states have or are considering corroboration requirements. But informant testimony can produce wrongful convictions in another way, and that is by making weak cases look stronger than they are. For example, Florida Today ran a story last week on the probable innocence of Gary Bennett. Bennett was convicted based on a now-discredited dog sniff expert and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch. Similarly, in the high profile case of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Texas man was convicted and executed for arson based on a combination of poor forensic science and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who later recanted. See previous post.

Such cases are not accidents. Jailhouse snitches are infamous for fabricating information about homicide and other high-profile cases, and offering the information to law enforcement without any solicitations or promises on the part of the government. In other words, the very existence of the case generates the bad evidence because of the general expectation in the offender population that such information will eventually be rewarded. This snitch testimony, however, makes the original case look stronger than it really is. This problem cannot be solved by corroboration requirements, since the informant's information is automatically "corroborated" by the pre-existing weak evidence. Yet another reason to restrict the use of jailhouse informant testimony.

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March 18, 2010

More on the Spokane convictions

Last month I posted this story about three men convicted of robbery based on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch in Spokane, Washington -- "Another wrongful conviction in the making?" Here's the follow-up story in the Pacific Northwest Inlander -- Justice Served? After another inmate confessed that he and the informant had framed Gassman, Statler and Larson, the defense sought a new trial but the court denied the motion. Since then, various players in the Spokane criminal system have been grappling with whether the convictions were accurate. From the article:

Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Tucker says he's not very familiar with the facts in the case, besides what he read in The Inlander. And he's not compelled to look any deeper, he says. "I don't think you realize how many calls I get like this. It's not practical. The system is taking care of it," Tucker says. "The further investigation will come from the appellate attorneys. They'll look at it."

Tucker's assumption that "the system" will take care of the problem of lying informants is misplaced. Once an informant testifies, the appellate process does not permit a court to go back and reevaluate his or her credibility--that task is left to the jury. There are also numerous legal roadblocks to challenging a conviction, even one based on shaky evidence, as evidenced by the fact that the defendants in this very case were not granted a new trial despite the new confession. In other words, informants are easy to use to get convictions, but very hard to challenge after the fact. This structural arrangement is one of the main reasons that criminal informants have become such a significant factor in wrongful convictions.

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March 12, 2010

The tangled web of informant and handler

While we may never know what actually happened between DEA Agent Lee Lucas and his informant Jerrell Bray--a hazardous partnership that rocked Cleveland for the last few years-- their story reveals the many dangers that arise when law enforcement hitches its wagon to criminal snitches. In 2007, the Cleveland Plain Dealer began extensive reporting on allegations that Bray, a convicted killer and drug dealer, was using his relationship to the DEA to frame rivals and innocent people and that Agent Lucas had lied to make cases. Eventually, over a dozen convictions were reversed, including those of people who pleaded guilty. Story here. Bray was convicted of perjury and is currently serving 14 years; Agent Lucas was prosecuted for perjury and obstruction of justice. Last month, a jury acquitted Agent Lucas of all 18 charges. Story here. Law enforcement agents are rarely prosecuted for relying on bad informants, so the Plain Dealer's coverage offers a rare glimpse into the ways that an informant can shape--or deform--official decisions.

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February 17, 2010

Another wrongful conviction in the making?

The Pacific Northwest Inlander just published this story, entitled Reasonable Doubt, about the recent robbery convictions of Tyler Gassman, Paul Statler, and Robert Larson. The sole evidence against the young defendants was the testimony of Matt Dunham, a confessed drug dealer and robber himself, who named Gassman and the two others as accomplices in a series of unsolved robberies. In exchange for his testimony, Dunham received a light sentence for his own robbery charge--18 months in a juvenile facility; by contrast, Gassman received 25 years. Two weeks after the verdict, Dunham's accomplice, Anthony Kongchunji, came forward and confessed that he and Dunham had conspired to pin the unsolved crimes on Gassman and the others in order to get deals for themselves, their friends, and relatives. The trial court denied the defendants' motion for a new trial, and the case is currently on appeal.

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February 03, 2010

Reform efforts in Texas and elsewhere

It is becoming increasingly common to see state commissions devoted to reducing wrongful convictions. These commissions often focus on three key sources of error: mistaken eyewitness testimony, false confessions, and snitches, although there are many additional subjects as well. For example, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice proposed several legislative reforms in this vein--the jailhouse informant corroboration reforms were passed twice by the California legislature but vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. Wisconsin recently established the Wisconsin Criminal Justice Study Commission. In 2002, North Carolina created a special commission to review post-conviction innocence claims.

In this same vein, Texas has established the Tim Cole Advisory Panel to reduce wrongful convictions in the state, and one of its missions is to examine the use of informants. Here's a recent news story about the Commission's visit to Tarrant County, Texas, in which the district attorney maintains a much-praised open-file policy. Here's an excerpt from GritsforBreakfast coverage of the panel's first meeting: Good vibes at Tim Cole Advisory Panel on false convictions.

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November 23, 2009

Fernando Bermudez exonerated--informant found to have lied

Cleared of murder charges after serving 18 years, Fernando Bermudez was freed on Friday. See NYT story here and my
previous post. Four witnesses recanted their testimony, stating that they had been pressured by the government into identifying Mr. Bermudez as the shooter. The main witness, Efraim Lopez, testified falsely under a cooperation agreement guaranteeing that he would not be charged with any crimes, even though he was centrally involved in the shooting. Judge Cataldo concluded that the government either knew or should have known Lopez was lying. Judge Cataldo's opinion is available here. Although the government concedes that its main witness Lopez perjured himself at trial, it has announced that it intends to appeal.

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October 30, 2009

Yet another snitch exoneration

Yesterday's New York Times, "Unyielding in His Innocence, Now a Free Man," reports on the exoneration of Dewey Bozella. Mr. Bozella spent 26 years in prison for a murder charge that the state now says it has insuffient evidence to prove. From the Times:

The prosecution relied almost entirely on the testimony of two men with criminal histories, both of whom repeatedly changed their stories and both of whom got favorable treatment in their own cases in exchange for their testimony.
There was no physical evidence linking Mr. Bozella to the killing. Instead, there was the fingerprint of another man, Donald Wise, who was later convicted of committing a nearly identical murder of another elderly woman in the same neighborhood.

Mr. Bozella was eventually acquitted due in part to the efforts of the Innocence Project. On December 2, The Innocence Project will be co-sponsoring a discussion of my book in conjunction with Cardozo Law School.

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October 12, 2009

Huffington Post on jailhouse snitches and exonerations

Today's Huffington Post reports on the recent death row exonerations of Yancy Douglas and Paris Powell--both men were convicted based solely on in-custody or "jailhouse" snitch testimony. The post was written by John Terzano, president of the Washington D.C.-based Justice Project, which has produced a report on jailhouse snitch use and policy recommendations. Here's an excerpt from the post:

These exonerations highlight the power prosecutors have in securing convictions by utilizing in-custody informant testimony, even when no physical evidence links a defendant to the crime. Testimony by in-custody informants or "jailhouse snitches" as they are often referred, is a leading cause of wrongful convictions. With little to lose, jailhouse snitches have great incentives to provide false information to prosecutors in exchange for leniency or other forms of compensation. Deals that are made between prosecutors and jailhouse snitches do not often come to light when a jury has to weigh the evidence is a case.

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September 03, 2009

New Yorker Article--Of Experts and Snitches

In this extensive New Yorker article, reporter David Grann tells the story of how Texas prosecuted and executed Cameron Todd Willingham for the alleged arson murder of his three children. Willingham always insisted on his innocence, and recent forensic evidence indicates that the fire was in fact an accident. A Texas government commission is reviewing the case--as Grann puts it, if the commission concludes that Willingham did not set the fire, "Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the 'execution of a legally and factually innocent person.'"

There were two controversial kinds of evidence used at Willingham's trial. The first and most important was the state expert's opinion that the fire was intentionally set. The second was the testimony of Johnny Webb, a jailhouse snitch with drug and mental health problems, who was hoping to "get time cut" off his robbery and forgery charges and who testified that Willingham confessed to him. Eight years after the trial, in 2000, Webb recanted his testimony, but within months he recanted again. Here are a few excerpts from the story describing Webb.

Not long after Willingham's arrest, authorities received a message from a prison inmate named Johnny Webb, who was in the same jail as Willingham. Webb alleged that Willingham had confessed to him . . .During Willingham's trial, another inmate planned to testify that he had overheard Webb saying to another prisoner that he was hoping to "get time cut," but the testimony was ruled inadmissible, because it was hearsay. . . . [Years later, in 2009, reporter David Grann interviewed Webb.] After [Grann] pressed him, [Webb] said, "It's very possible I misunderstood what he [Willingham] said." Since the trial, Webb has been given an additional diagnosis, bipolar disorder. "Being locked up in that little cell makes you kind of crazy," he said. "My memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of medication at the time. Everyone knew that." He paused, then said, "The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn't it?"

This is a good example of how jailhouse informant testimony can not only create bad cases but bolster weak ones. Because of the general understanding in the criminal system that informants get a break, informants may reach out to the government to offer testimony, making bad cases look better. In other words, the culture of snitching generates evidentiary "filler," even if the government is not actively looking for any.


The New Yorker story is centrally about the role of bad forensic expertise, and it highlights similarities between experts and informants. Both are paid and controlled by one side, both have a stake in the outcome, and both offer testimony that is difficult to cross examine or rebut. Professor George Harris wrote an article on these similiarities entitled "Testimony for Sale: The Law and Ethics of Snitches and Experts," in Pepperdine Law Review, in which he argues that experts and snitches alike should be subject to more rigorous controls and adversarial testing. In particular, he offers a proposal, on which I expand in my book, to create "defense informants," i.e. informants who could testify for defendants and receive the same kind of benefits that informants can now receive only by testifying for the prosecution.

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August 18, 2009

Troy Davis Gets a Hearing--Recantation Redux

I posted the other day about how hard it is for defendants to get new trials when the witnesses against them have recanted. Yesterday, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of granting death row inmate Troy Davis a new hearing. Of the nine witnesses who testified that Davis shot and killed Officer Mark MacPhail in 1989, seven have recanted. Of the remaining two witnesses, one--Red Coles--is suspected of being the actual shooter. Here's the NYT story .

While the Davis case is not ostensibly about snitching, it revolves around some classic dynamics associated with informant use and its unreliability. One recanting witness--Kevin McQueen--was in fact a jailhouse snitch who testified that Davis confessed to him. McQueen had worked several times before as a police informant and knew the value of providing information against other inmates. When Queen recanted, he explained that he had fabricated the confession based on jailhouse gossip and television reports. Here's the excerpt from the original appeals brief:

Ex-inmate Kevin McQueen testified at Davis' trial that Troy had confessed to him. McQueen had been a "snitch" in other prosecutions and his version of Troy's "confession" differed wildly from established facts (e.g. Troy was eating breakfast at the Burger King in the morning). McQueen subsequently admitted, "[t]he truth is that Troy never confessed to me or talked to me about the shooting of the police officer. I made up the confession from information I had heard on TV. and from other inmate's talk about the crimes. Troy did not tell me any of this."

This tactic of fabricating other inmates' confessions based on jailhouse talk and publicly available information was made famous by Leslie Vernon White, a Los Angeles jailhouse snitch. In 1989, White went on 60 Minutes and showed reporters how with a few phone calls from the jail he could get enough information to fabricate a confession that police and prosecutors would accept as true. The ensuing Los Angeles Grand Jury Investigation (link to the left) was a response to the White revelations.

Another important aspect of the Davis case that commonly occurs in informant cases is the "first-in-the-door" phenomenon, in which the first suspect to cooperate with police not only gets to direct attention away from himself but can fundamentally shape the official investigation. Red Coles is the man who several witnesses now identify as the real shooter. The day after the shooting, Coles and his attorney went to police and fingered Davis as the shooter--Coles became a witness against Davis at trial. As a result of Coles's cooperation, police resources were directed at Davis. This happens all the time with informants, especially in complex fraud or drug cases--the first suspects to cooperate shape the entire investigation and make it more difficult to discover the truth. Former prosecutor Steven Cohen describes what happens when the government believes a witness who cooperates early:

it is a certainty that the information obtained from the cooperator will become part of the base of information utilized to evaluate future would-be cooperators. Moreover, the information will affect future questioning of witnesses and defendants; it will alter how investigators view the significance of witnesses and particular pieces of evidence; and it may taint the way the case is perceived by the prosecutors and agents. In other words, false information skews the ongoing investigation. The false information may prove critical to issues that have far greater import than whether to accept as true the proffer of another would-be cooperator. Rather, it might impact decisions regarding charges to be filed against other defendants, it might affect decisions related to an appropriate plea for a given defendant, and it might even influence whether the government decides to seek the death penalty. (Steven M. Cohen, "What is True? Perspectives of a Former Prosecutor," 23 Cardozo L. Rev. 817, 825 (2002)).

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August 11, 2009

Professional Prison Snitch Ring

I recommend this recent feature article in Reason Magazine by Radley Balko, entitled Guilty Before Proven Innocent. It tells the mind-blowing story of an innocent family in Louisiana, Ann Colomb and her three sons, who were wrongfully convicted of drug trafficking based on the testimony of numerous prison snitches. The informants were part of an information-selling network inside the federal prison, in which inmates purchased files and photographs to help them fabricate testimony which they then marketed to prosecutors in order to get sentence reductions. A bunch of inmates got hold of the Colomb file, and told prosecutors that they would testify against the family. If it werent for a few chance encounters that revealed the scam, the Colomb family would still be in federal prison.

I like this story because it highlights some classic problems with criminal informants. It also illustrates the scale of the phenomenon--and its potential for massive miscarriages of justice-- in ways that may be surprising to people unfamiliar with the daily workings of the criminal process.

Continue reading "Professional Prison Snitch Ring" »

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