January 24, 2012

Washington state family sues police for the murder of their informant son

From the Washington State Daily News: Family of murdered informant files claim.

The parents of a slain Longview drug informant have filed claims against Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties, saying narcotics detectives coerced 26-year-old Jeremy McLean into their service, then failed to protect him from a drug dealer he'd helped police snare.

McLean, who was murdered by William Vance Reagan Jr. in late 2008, was arrested on drug-related charges and "was forced to sign a plea agreement ... in order to avoid incarceration," according to documents filed late last month. The terms of the plea agreement required McLean to become an informant for the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Narcotics Task Force, according to the claim...

Reagan, who was sentenced to life in prison, confessed to the killing, saying he was trying to keep McLean from testifying against him.

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January 11, 2012

Detroit teen killed after becoming an informant

Shelley Hilliard, a 19-year-old transgendered woman, agreed with police to set up a $335 drug deal in order to avoid being arrested for marijuana possession. Three days later she was killed, allegedly by the man she set up. Detroit News story here: Teen found dead three days after helping police. This story illustrates how informant culture encourages dangerous decisions that are wildly disproportionate to the crimes involved. This young woman took a great risk to avoid the petty offense of marijuana possession, and police turned her into an informant, with all its attendant risks, in pursuit of another petty drug deal worth less than $400. Such important decisions--by individuals or police--should not be made so cavalierly. For example, Florida's "Rachel's Law" requires police to establish guidelines to determine when it is appropriate, or too dangerous, to turn a suspect into an informant. Rachel's Law was passed in response to the death of Rachel Hoffman, another young informant who was killed while setting up a drug deal. See this previous post: Florida's Rachel's Law provides some protection to informants, and the Families & Youth section on the main website for related stories.

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September 16, 2011

New York officers sued for failing to protect informant

The mother of a 20-year-old informant is suing two NYPD officers for failing to protect her son who was killed an hour and a half after he tipped off his handler to the location of some guns and drugs. Story here: Mom of slain informant Anthony Velez sues cops for failing to protect him. Such suits are rarely successful--courts have been reluctant to hold police accountable for the fate of their informants, even when the government contributes to the risk. See this post discussing the government's responsibility for the safety of its informants.

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April 13, 2011

Young informant killed and mother sues

In 2008 in Florida, 16-year-old Maciel Martin Videla was killed for being an informant. News story here: Mother of murdered confidential informant sues sheriff's office. The family's suit against the Sheriff's Office is based in large part on an undercover police officer's admission that the murderer, Alfredo Sotelo-Gomez, told him (the officer) that he knew Videla was a snitch that he was going to "take care of him," but the officer did not report the threat or warn Videla, who was killed the next day. Narcotics agent: Defendant promised to 'take care of' victim. Sotelo-Gomez was convicted yesterday of kidnapping and first-degree murder.

Videla was killed before the Florida legislature passed Rachel's Law, see Florida's Rachel's Law provides some protection to informants, although that legislation would not necessarily have prevented the police from using Videla as an informant.

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June 25, 2010

Federal witness killed after lawyer allegedly leaks his name

The cycle of failure continues in Baltimore: last year an FBI drug informant was killed, this year a woman who authorities believe witnessed his murder is being charged with perjury and faces 30 years in prison for refusing to testify about it: Baltimore Sun story here. Kareem Guest was killed after a lawyer allegedly violated an agreement to keep Guest's cooperation confidential. It's worth noting that local media initially dismissed Guest's murder as a routine street killing. As the Sun writes:

Guest, 31, was shot repeatedly in the head and chest on Sept. 20, 2009. In one of those familiar bloody Baltimore weekends, he was one of 13 people shot over two days — one more name on a burgeoning list noting the violence but saying virtually nothing of the circumstances. City police and the news media initially dismissed Guest as a routine victim, a man on probation for drugs, leaving the impression that he was killed, like many others, in some sort of petty dispute over heroin. The FBI knew better.

In cities like Baltimore, it is impossible to know how much street violence is associated with informants--crimes against them as well as crimes committed by them. That's why I've argued that law enforcement agencies should start keeping track of and make public the extent to which urban crime is directly connected to snitching policies and practices.

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June 14, 2010

More developments in Philly's struggle with witness intimidation

An interesting story over the weekend in the Philadelphia Inquirer on increased protections for witnesses in light of Philadelphia's witness intimidation crisis. The city is ramping up prosecutions against intimidators, monitoring courtrooms more closely, and looking for more resources to protect witnesses. These are all important developments. See earlier post on pending federal legislation. The City Council is also considering a bill to impose fines of $2000 on intimidators--perhaps more a symbolic step than anything else. As I've written elsewhere, residents in high crime neighborhoods need to feel protected by the police, not only in connection with specific cases in which they might be witnesses but more generally. Philadelphia renewed commitment to witness protection could be a good first step in this direction.

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May 24, 2010

Shooting victim testifies in Philly

A shooting victim's willingness to testify against the drug dealer who shot him is big news in Philadelphia: Inquirer story here--Despite Threats, Victim Testifies in Phila. Court. That such testimony is perceived as rare (and courageous) reflects the widespread violent witness intimidation suffered by Philly urban residents, and documented in this Inquirer series: Witness Intimidation Crisis. As I've written elsewhere, witness intimidation is most pernicious when the threatened fear that the government won't protect them. That's why these legislative efforts to improve state witness protection programs are so important.

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April 26, 2010

Snitches killing snitches

Here's a story of violent irony. Last Friday, two young New Jersey women were sentenced for participating in the execution of a friend--Latyria Nealy--because the gang to which all three women belonged thought Nealy might be snitching. Having lured Nealy to her death on suspicion of being a snitch, one of the women, Nikki Moore, then became an informant herself, providing "significant, extensive, and comprehensive" cooperation which earned her two years off her 12-year sentence. The other defendant apparently also cooperated in some fashion but did not get any credit. Story here: Pair Sentenced in Gang Execution: Asbury Park Woman Killed for being a 'Snitch'. The irony, of course, lies in the cycle of violence in which people work off their sentences for killing suspected informants by becoming informants themselves. The deeper challenge is helping young people surrounded by crime who are caught in the middle--between violent gangs that threaten those who talk, and a criminal system that punishes those who remain silent.

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January 14, 2010

New developments in federal witness intimidation legislation

The Philadelphia Inquirer's witness intimidation series (previous post here) triggered a congressional hearing. You can read the testimonies here, including criticism of the series for exaggerating the extent of the problem. See testimony of Michael Coard. Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) subsequently called for a law that would make witness intimidation a federal offense; witness intimidation is already a state crime. Story here. In a similar development, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) introduced the Witness Security and Protection Grant Program Act of 2009, to provide assistance to state and local witness protection programs. Press release here. More indications that the law of informant use will look very different a few years from now.

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December 15, 2009

A witness intimidation crisis in Philadelphia

WSJ Blog picked up this lengthy story from the Philadelphia Inquirer, documenting rampant witness intimidation, violence, and the inability of city prosecutors to prosecute violent crimes. One witness saw his own written statement to police posted on a wall as a flier, with the following words scribbled on it: "Don't stand next to this man. You might get shot." From the Inquirer:

"It's endemic. People are frightened to death," said District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham. "We've had witness after witness intimidated, threatened, frightened." And the city cannot guarantee their protection. "That fear, that's real," said Jamie Egan, a former city prosecutor. "When people would ask me if I could guarantee their safety, I would say, 'Unfortunately, I cannot.'" Abraham has long fought for more money to protect and relocate witnesses in criminal cases. For 15 years, she has repeatedly complained, to no avail, that the city's program was underfunded and failing to meet a crucial need. Local funding for witness relocation is a fraction of the spending in the vaunted federal witness-protection program. Efforts to pump city money into the local program have failed year after year.

Witness intimidation is part and parcel of the more general violence, insecurity, and lack of resources in so many inner city neighborhoods. According to the National Institutes of Justice, witness intimidation is a longstanding problem in poor, high-crime communities like Philadelphia, especially in gang-dominated neighborhoods. Over a decade ago, studies warned about localized violence and witness intimidation in areas of concentrated poverty and crime. Stories like the Inquirer's suggest that the problem is now even more widespread. As I argue in the book, states need resources comparable to the federal WITSEC program to protect witnesses, particularly poor witnesses who lack resources themselves and may be stuck in violent neighborhoods. As a parent of a murdered young witness mourned in the Inquirer article:
"If you see something, you better look the other way. That's a sad thing to say to a victim, but I'm the number one candidate saying 'Don't tell nothing unless you can take care of yourself, because the city don't have nothing in place to help you.'"

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October 12, 2009

"Snitch and you're a dead man"

Journalism professor and author John Fountain weighs in on the "stop snitching" phenomenon in the Chicago Tribune. He describes urban neighborhoods permeated with fear and insecurity, and takes issue with criticism of residents who are unwilling to talk to police. He writes:

In my experience growing up in an impoverished Chicago community like those under siege, it boils down to an issue of trust. And many who live in the city's most murderous neighborhoods -- who have also witnessed police and political corruption and a trail of broken promises -- simply don't trust the authorities enough to come forward. By doing so, they could be laying their lives on the line. It isn't that people don't want to tell. They do. And it isn't that they aren't concerned about their neighborhoods. They are. But to come forward is to risk everything, even in a world where "safety" is always relative.

Fountain's piece highlights a central reason that the public debate over criminal justice is so fractured: people and groups have radically different experiences and expectations. In neighborhoods where police are perceived as responsive, where people do not worry constantly about their personal security, where the legal system seems fair and effective, it makes eminent sense to talk to police. In neighborhoods where none of this is true, it might make sense not to. Such differences in perception show up quite publicly in debates over "stop snitching," but they quietly affect all aspects of the criminal process, from the way people relate to defense lawyers to the kinds of punishment people consider to be fair. In my view, this is one of the reasons that the "stop snitching" debate is valuable: it encourages the public exposure of some very different legal realities.

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