July 24, 2014

Florida Supreme Court regulates criminal informant testimony

In 2012, the Florida Innocence Commission made a series of reform recommendations in recognition of the "dangers of false informant and jailhouse snitch testimony." The Florida Supreme Court has now amended the rules of evidence to reflect those recommendations. See In re: Amendments to Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure 3.220. The Miami Herald reported the story here: Florida's high court puts brakes on snitches' testimony.

The Florida Supreme Court . . . finally has changed the rules of evidence. Beginning this month, prosecutors now are required to disclose both a summary of the jailhouse informant's criminal history and just what kind of deal a snitch will be getting in return for testimony. And now, jurors will hear about prior cases that relied on testimony from that particular informant. The justices ordered new restrictions on the much abused informant testimony, because snitches, the court noted, "constitute the basis for many wrongful convictions." It was an unanimous decision. It was about time.

The new rules require greater disclosure of an informant's criminal background, prior history of providing information to the government, and all their deals. Of particular importance, the Florida court included all informants who allege that they have evidence about defendant statements, not merely "jailhouse snitches," i.e., those who happen to be in jail at the time. The new rule also requires disclosure of benefits that the informant "expects to receive" for his testimony, and it defines benefits broadly as "anything...[including any] personal advantage, vindication, or other benefit that the prosecution, or any person acting on behalf of the prosecution, has knowingly made or may make in the future." This is an important counter to the fact that informants know that they are likely to be rewarded for providing information even if no one explicitly promises them anything up front. Thanks to EvidenceProfBlog for calling attention to this important development.

Filed in , ,

April 01, 2014

Orange County jailhouse snitch operation

The District Attorney's Office in Orange County is accused of running an unconstitutional jailhouse snitch program, much like the infamous one in Los Angeles that ended twenty years ago. See these stories from the L.A. Times , the Voice of OC, and and Orange County Register. From the Register:

[Defense attorneys] say sheriff's deputies, including one who worked as a "handler" for jailed informants, arranged for informants to be placed next to selected inmates and lure them into making incriminating statements. Deputies and prosecutors then conspired to hide the fact the men were informants from defense attorneys and pretended their encounters were coincidental, despite the longstanding legal requirement that prosecutors turn over information that could help the defense.

Filed in

December 15, 2012

Jailhouse snitches pay $1000s for information

USA Today ran this indepth story about a pay-for-information scheme in the Atlanta jail, in which federal inmates looking for cooperation credit bought information to pass on to their handlers, passing it off as their own knowledge. Story here: Federal prisoners use snitching for personal gain. The story offers an unusually detailed and extensive look at the ways that inmates and informants can game the system, buying and selling information that prosecutors and investigators then reward them for and rely on. In this black market free-for-all, inmates paid tens of thousands of dollars ($250,000 in one case) for information to lower their sentences, while FBI agents relied on snitches who were passing on second-hand uncorroborated information from the street. It is the fourth such scheme uncovered in Atlanta alone in the last 20 years.

A similar pay-for-information scheme was discovered in a federal prison in Louisiana, after Ann Colomb and her three sons were wrongfully convicted based on the testimony of dozens of snitch inmates. See this post: Professional Prison Snitch Ring.

Filed in

November 28, 2012

New informant legislation introduced in Texas

A Texas legislator has just introduced a new bill, H.B. 189, that would bar the use of compensated criminal informants in capital cases. H.B. 189 would make informant and accomplice testimony inadmissible 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." In effect, the bill embodies the sensible idea that paying criminals for their testimony is simply too unreliable to be used in death penalty cases. The Texas Tribune ran this story: Bill Would Restrict Informant Testimony in Death Cases. The bill would also bar the use of alleged confessions made to jailhouse snitches unless the confessions are corroborated by electronic recordings. In many ways Texas has been on the forefront of this issue--the state already has drug and jailhouse snitch corroboration requirements. See this post: Texas requires corroboration for informant witnesses.

Filed in , ,

May 14, 2012

In the news: released jailhouse informant accused in new murder

The Louisville Courier-Journal reports on a jailhouse informant who was released in exchange for his testimony. Two months later, he was charged in the murder of a 15-year-old. From the story:

Jefferson Circuit Court Judge McKay Chauvin told James Mallory in February that he wasn't a good choice to be released from prison on shock probation, given his criminal history -- and, in fact, the judge had already denied the request previously.

But Chauvin nonetheless released him at prosecutors' request after Mallory came forward with what he called "bombshell" information in a letter offering the Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney's Office evidence against several defendants in exchange for helping him get out of a nine-year prison term.

Now, just two months later, Mallory is charged with murdering a 15-year-old boy.

Filed in ,

Impact of 'Rachel's Law' on informant use

The Tallahassee Democrat has published this article about the effects of Rachel's Law on informant use in Florida, four years after the death of Rachel Hoffman: Four years later, Hoffman's death still impacts CI use. The article concludes that the Tallahassee police department made some significant changes.

For six months immediately following Hoffman's death, the department suspended the use of all CIs. For a long time, no one wanted to work narcotics cases, which often rely on informants, the chief said.

"We had to be confident in our investigators that they were ready," [Chief] Jones said.

An audit of department confidential-informant files conducted about six months after Hoffman was killed found lax record keeping and noted areas of improvement. Personnel were moved, the vice unit was made a part the Criminal Investigations Division of a new Special Investigation Section and supervision was stepped up.

Today, TPD's rules governing the handling of confidential informants mirror that of Rachel's Law, which was spearheaded by Hoffman's parents and provides some safeguards for vulnerable informants.

"I think we've got a very good policy now," Jones said. "We have elevated ourselves and are back in the lead and set the tone for the state."

Tallahassee is reminiscent of Los Angeles in the 1990s. After a massive grand jury investigation concluded that the jail was rampant with unreliable informants and that police and prosecutors were relying on them, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office instituted significant changes. Today, it has some of the most rigorous regulations for the tracking and use of jailhouse informants in the country: Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office Legal Policies Manual.

Filed in , , , ,

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.

Filed in , ,

September 08, 2011

9th Circuit reverses death penalty because of lying informant

Yesterday in Sivak v. Hardison, the Ninth Circuit reversed yet another death sentence based on a lying jailhouse informant and the "State's knowing presentation of perjured inmate testimony." See also this post regarding Maxwell v. Roe. In Sivak, the prosecution used two jailhouse informants--Duane Grierson who described himself as a "chronic liar," and Jimmy Leytham, who falsely testified that he did not expect any rewards for his testimony. The Ninth Circuit concluded that these two unreliable witnesses provided the only direct evidence of Sivak's personal participation in the homicide and that therefore his capital sentencing violated due process.

Filed in ,

August 02, 2011

California passes jailhouse informant corroboration law

Governor Brown just signed important new legislation requiring corroboration before a jailhouse informant can testify. SF Chronicle story here: Law requires corroboration of cellmate's testimony. California joins Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts, Idaho, and several other states that require safeguards to counteract the well-documented unreliability of jailhouse snitch testimony. Here is part of the bill:

A jury or judge may not convict a defendant, find a special circumstance true, or use a fact in aggravation based on the uncorroborated testimony of an in-custody informant.

An "in custody informant" is defined as: "a person, other than a codefendant, percipient witness, accomplice, or coconspirator, whose testimony is based on statements allegedly made by the defendant while both the defendant and the informant were held in within a city or county jail, state penal institution, or correctional institution." Full disclosure: I testified in support of this legislation.

Filed in ,

May 11, 2011

9th Circuit upholds use of jailhouse snitch in sting operation

Jailhouse informant Robert Plunkett reported to police that he had learned that attorney John Garcia was willing to deliver drugs into the Merced County jail. The police set up a sting, and Garcia accepted a bag containing methamphetamines from Plunkett for delivery to his (Garcia's) incarcerated client. As a result of this transaction, Garcia's law office was searched and he was arrested, although not prosecuted. He then sued the police for violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, in effect arguing that based on Plunkett's information they didn't have enough evidence to arrest him or get a warrant. Story here. In Garcia v. County of Merced, the 9th Circuit denied Garcia's claim, reaffirming the principle that information from informants, if properly corroborated and checked, can constitute probable cause for arrest or for a warrant. In this case, "there were at least seven to eight items of corroboration that confirm what [Plunkett reported]."

The opinion is additionally interesting because it was authored by Judge Stephen Trott, who has been an outspoken critic of the use of criminal informants and lectures prosecutors around the country on the perils of informant use. See Judge Stephen Trott, Outline of lecture to prosecutors on the use of informants. The opinion notes that jailhouse snitches are unreliable, that "the word of a jailhouse informant [] is suspect and ordinarily requires corroboration before it can be accepted as probable cause," and that "jaihouse informants can always be presumed to be looking for consideration in return for the information." In this case, however, the Court found that the police disclosed enough information to the judge who issued the warrant to put the judge on notice of Plunkett's "suspect and shaky character." That disclosure, in combination with the substantial corroboration, was enough for the warrant.

Filed in ,

March 16, 2011

Los Angeles jury convicts British man based on jailhouse informant

Neil Revill was convicted today of a double murder based largely on the testimony of jailhouse informant Benjamin Chloupek. Revill was accused of killing a fellow meth user Arthur Davodian, who ironically was himself a police informer who may have given information to the police about Revill. Chloupek testifed that Revill confessed the details of the murder to him while they were incarcerated. Chloupek, whose substantial criminal record includes convictions for manslaughter and child abuse involving the death of an 18-month-old, "admitted approaching detectives with his account in the hope of obtaining a lenient sentence on a burglary case he was facing."

The use of jailhouse informant witnesses in Los Angeles has become a rarity. After a scathing Grand Jury investigation in 1990 in which rampant abuses of informants were uncovered in the Los Angeles jail, the District Attorney's office clamped down, creating new corroboration restrictions, a central jailhouse informant index and committee, and requiring high-level approval before such witnesses could be used. The District Attorneys office states that it has approved the use of jailhouse informant witnesses only six times since 2006. Here's the Los Angeles Times story: Jailhouse informant plays a critical role in trial for a brutal double murder.

Filed in ,

January 12, 2011

Harris County, TX offering jailhouse snitches $5000

More Texas news. The Harris County jail has a new "Crime Stoppers" program aimed at inmates who call in information, offering rewards of up to $5,000. Houston Chronicle story here: Jailhouse informers: Inmates can offer tips, get paid. County Sheriff Adrian Garcia explains the idea:

"When people are coming into the jail environment, we recognize they're vulnerable," Garcia said. "They're caught and being processed. We wanted to take advantage of that psychology. If they are the only one caught and they've been involved in a crime someone else planned, it may be a good idea for them to speak up."

While the idea of extending Crime Stoppers to criminals might seem logical, Grits for Breakfast points out some challenges:
One critical difference between [jailhouse snitches] and others who call Crime Stoppers, though: While an arrest may be made or criminal charges filed based on testimony from a jailhouse informant, in 2009 the Texas Legislature, in a bill authored by state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, required corroboration for jailhouse snitches' testimony in order to secure a conviction. Another difference: Jail calls are never anonymous.

The oddest aspect of the new program is that it completely ignores the well-documented tendency of jailhouse snitches to lie in exchange for benefits. From the Los Angeles Grand Jury investigation to the Canadian Kaufman inquiry, the Illinois Commission on the death penalty, and the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice report, numerous official studies have documented the pervasive use of snitches in U.S. jails and the potent dangers of wrongful conviction that flow from doing so. See for example, The Snitch System Report by Northwestern University Law School, concluding that criminal snitches constitute the "leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases." It is thus hard to see how Crime Stoppers' executive director Katherine Cabannis can say that "she believes the program will be successful because it solicits crime information from an untapped population" or how it can be that District Attorney Pat Lykos "sees no potential downsides." Indeed, jailhouse snitch testimony is so infamously unreliable that it compelled Texas to enact its corroboration requirement, which I applauded here: Texas requires corroboration for jailhouse snitches. While the corroboration requirement should mitigate some of the dangers of Harris County's new reward program, in this day and age government officials should think long and hard before creating new incentives for jailhouse informants.

Filed in

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.

Filed in , ,

September 21, 2010

Motion to Preclude Creation of Snitch Testimony

The Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit recently filed this motion asking the court to take protective measures to prevent jailhouse snitches from being created in the case of Kansas v. Adam Longoria. Asserting that "Mr. Longoria has no intention of talking to anyone but his attorneys about the facts of this case," the motion requests that the court "take measures to ensure that no jailhouse snitches or other suspect informants are created in this case to manufacture evidence for the state." This proactive defense tactic appears to be getting more common (see previous post: Interesting effort to preempt jailhouse snitching).

Filed in ,

August 18, 2010

Interesting effort to preempt jailhouse snitching

Since everyone in the criminal system knows that high-profile murder suspects are prime targets for jailhouse snitches, why not try to nip it in the bud? That's what one Arizona public defender tried to do, asking the judge to keep other inmates away from his client Pamela Phillips if those other inmates were also represented by the public defender's office. Were such inmates to come forward as snitch witnesses, it would create a conflict and the public defender's office could no longer represent Phillips. Story here: Pre-emptive anti-snitch move fails. The judge denied the motion, but its a good example of proactive lawyering that builds on our growing knowledge of how jailhouse informants operate.

Filed in

July 18, 2010

Another jailhouse snitch drives a homicide investigation

Today's Akron Beacon Journal reports on new developments in the Neal Rankin murder case: "DNA results may give inmate a new trial." The police had a lot of trouble identifying a suspect back in 1993--according to the commander of the homicide unit, they had "45 suspects the first day," and murder charges were brought and then dropped against several defendants. Finally, over a year after the murder, the government charged Dewey Amos Jones with the crime based on an allegation from a jaihouse snitch that Jones had confessed to him. I include the story not only because it is yet another example of a shaky case built on compensated snitch testimony, but because it illustrates how powerful an informant's allegations can be. Here, a jailhouse snitch got authorities to focus on Jones long after the crime, and without any direct evidence of his guilt. Jones is represented by the Ohio Innocence Project.

Filed in ,

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.

Filed in ,

April 28, 2010

48 Hours report on killer FBI informant

CBS/48 Hours ran this special investigative report on serial killer-FBI informant Scott Kimball. Kimball--a long-time felon--was sharing a prison cell and saw a photo of his cellmate's girlfriend, Jennifer Marcum. Kimball concocted a story about a murder-for-hire scheme in order to secure his own release, and then--while working for the FBI as an informant--proceeded to murder Marcum and at least two other women. When Marcum's parents approached the FBI with their suspicions, Kimball's FBI handler dismissed them. This dynamic is one of the major dangers of informant reliance: not only was Kimball able to use his status as a jailhouse snitch to gain release based on fabricated evidence, but his snitch status and relationship with the government protected him, at least initially, from investigation.

This story reveals, among other things, that there are no clear lines between jailhouse snitches and working informants--one can morph into another and, all too often, take the government along for the ride. This fact should influence those states--including California, Illinois, and Texas, to name but a few-- that are considering jailhouse snitch reforms. The same concerns about unreliability and criminal conduct are present whenever any criminal informant--in or out of jail--trades information in order to escape punishment for his own crimes.

Filed in ,

January 13, 2010

Patt Morrison Show and L.A. Times investigative reporter Ted Rohrlich

Last week I did the Patt Morrison Show on KPCC (you can listen here), with prize-winning former L.A.Times investigative reporter Ted Rohrlich. Over the years he's done some great stories on informants. For example, in Trading Lies for Freedom, Rohrlich reported on several professional jailhouse snitches in the Los Angeles County jail system, including the now-infamous Leslie Vernon White of 60 Minutes fame. The piece describes the "variety of techniques" used by snitches to fabricate confessions:

To gather the information that will make a confession appear plausible, informants have used a variety of techniques, ranging from the artful to the crude. Some informants, for example, have carefully maintained files of newspaper and magazine articles on sensational criminal cases, or have stolen legal documents from the cells of other inmates. They have conned fellow prisoners, even those who have insisted on their innocence, into giving up key details of the cases against them. Some have pretended to be jailhouse lawyers offering free advice. Others merely have asked why someone is in jail, then transformed the most sincere protestations of innocence into admissions of guilt. Informants have purchased information from other informants for money, candy or cigarettes. Some informants have testified that they received inside information from police.

In Authorities Go Fishing for Jailhouse Confessions, Rohrlich described how some detectives purposefully placed suspects in the LA jail "snitch tank," hoping that the resident informants would come up with incriminating confessions. The story begins as follows:

The homicide detective thought he knew the identity of a murderer but couldn't prove it. To make his case, he wanted a confession. But his suspect wouldn't talk. Los Angeles Police Detective Philip Sowers did what one prosecutor said a lot of detectives do. He turned to the informant tank at Los Angeles County Jail for help. Sowers arranged for jailers to place his suspect, who was not an informant, in the special section of the jail reserved for informants -- inmates who habitually tell police that other inmates have confessed to murders or other serious crimes. Within days, Sowers had reports from four informants, known to detectives as "friendlies," that his suspect had confessed.

Finally, Rohrlich wrote a more recent piece on the Rampart scandal, entitled Scandal Shows Why Innocent Plead Guilty. This is a particularly important article because it describes a common but nearly invisible problem in the criminal system: how the plea bargaining process pressures innocent people to plead guilty.
Joseph Jones had quite a choice. He could plead guilty to selling drugs he had not sold and serve eight years in prison. Or he could risk being convicted at trial and, as a three-time loser, be sentenced to life. Ex-felon Miguel Hernandez was offered a similarly absurd "break." He could give up 16 months of his life by pleading guilty to possessing a weapon he had never had. Or he could demand a trial and face the possibility of four or more years in prison. In offering criminal defendants these kinds of Hobson's choices, prosecutors and judges did not set out to induce innocent men to plead guilty--although that is what they did. The prosecutors and judges merely accepted the word of Los Angeles police that the men were guilty.

While this piece tells the story of innocent people who pled guilty because police gave false information, a similar dynamic is at work when innocent people are confronted with false information from a snitch.

Each of these articles is important in its own right, shedding light on specific criminal justice failures. They also remind us that journalism plays a crucial role in maintaining the accountability of a criminal process that rarely volunteers information about its own mistakes.

Filed in , ,

November 08, 2009

Federal rewards for prison snitches

The federal rules of criminal procedure have special re-sentencing provisions for informants who provide information after they have already started serving their sentences. Rule 35(b)(2) permits a court to reduce a prisoner's sentence if the government asks the court to do so more than one year after sentencing. Rule 35(b)(1) governs such requests made less than a year after sentencing. Approximately 1,700 federal prisoners got such sentence reductions in fiscal year 2008. At least one federal judge, Judge Tucker Melancon (D-LA), has complained that inviting inmates to provide information while they are in prison is an invitation to fabrication. See post: Professional prison snitch ring.

Last month, the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion interpreting Rule 35(b)(2). In U.S. v. Shelby, the court held that a district judge contemplating a motion for a sentence reduction can only reduce the sentence based on the extent of the defendant's cooperation, and not on the more general sentencing factors contained in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) which judges are required to consider when initially sentencing defendants. By contrast, the Sixth Circuit has held that judges can consider 3553(a)'s general sentencing factors--which include things such as a defendant's likelihood of rehabilitation, prior criminal record, and other personal history--when resentencing under 35(b)(2).

This may seem like an esoteric point, but it is important for several reasons. First, it affects thousands of sentences each year. Second, judges can consider the 3553(a) factors in refusing to reduce a cooperator's sentence; they just can't consider those factors if they want to lower the sentence. The Sixth Circuit deemed this to be an unfair "one-way rachet"--the Seventh Circuit didn't. Shelby also resists the general tide of recent federal case law that favors judicial discretion, since United States v. Booker restored sentencing discretion to federal judges. (See Sentencing Law and Policy blog for detailed discussions of Booker-related developments.) The Seventh Circuit, and other circuits that agree with it, have curtailed that discretion when it comes to rewarding post-sentence cooperation.

Finally, this case is a reminder of how central snitching is to federal criminal law. With the abolition of parole, federal offenders are required to serve nearly their entire sentences, regardless of their conduct in prison, further education, or other rehabilitation. As this case makes case abundantly clear, the only chance they have to earn early release is to give information to the government.

Filed in ,

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.

Filed in , ,

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" »

Filed in , ,


Legislation, Litigation, Reports & Scholarship

Comprehensive resource site for lawyers, journalists, government officials & the public.

Recent Posts



Snitching by Alexandra Natapoff A Barnes & Noble Best Pick of 2009

2010 ABA Silver Gavel Award Honorable Mention for Books
2010 ABA Silver Gavel Award
Honorable Mention for Books

Related Links

Other Law Blogs and Websites of Interest

Legal Disclaimer

  • Content on this site is for informational purposes only. Snitching Blog does not give legal advice; nothing on this site should be construed as legal advice. Snitching Blog does not warrant the accuracy or currency of any information on this site.
  • Guest bloggers are invited in order to enhance the diversity of information and opinion available on this blog. Their opinions are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Snitching Blog. Snitching Blog does not endorse any company, private service, or product.