The shady world of informants

This article from reason.com, about the wrongful conviction of Ann Colomb and her family on drug trafficking charges, is rather long but well worth reading. It tells the story of Ann and her family, and illustrates how racism, the “war on drugs,” the unreliability of jailhouse snitches, and ethically challenged prosecutors can all come together to destroy innocent people.
One thing that is raised in the article is whether independent corroboration of a jailhouse snitch’s testimony should be required before they are allowed to testify. The problem of the persistent use of jailhouse snitches by prosecutors to make their cases should be addressed by rule or by statute, and a requirement of independent corroboration would be a great place to start.
Offering freedom in the form of reduced charges, sentences, or even outright immunity is such a huge incentive for informants to lie that it cannot be ignored. Any case that hinges on such testimony is suspect, and there are undoubtedly thousands of such cases nationwide every year, such as Rick Gagnon’s recent conviction for murder. Although DNA evidence showed there was another person at the scene of the crime, and the government’s evidence was shaky at best, Gagnon was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, largely based on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch.
Whenever a person with pending charges gains details about a case, through news articles, through conversations with the defendant, or through discovery materials sent to the jail from the defense attorney, they will try to use it to their advantage. Knowing that prosecutors can and will offer them years off their own sentences or even outright dismissals in some instances, inmates will tell prosecutors whatever they want to hear.


The Shady World of Informants, borrowed from reason.com:

The use of dubious informants is standard practice in drug policing. Narcotics officers routinely recruit drug addicts, rival dealers, and arrestees already facing their own drug charges to make controlled buys from suspected drug dealers or to point out places where drugs might be found. The system is fraught with problems, including a lack of oversight, little accountability, and twisted incentives that encourage shortcuts and corruption.
But even within the already tawdry informant system, jailhouse informants occupy a particularly pernicious niche. Mandatory minimum sentences contribute to the corruption of jailhouse informant testimony. Under federal law, the only way someone serving a mandatory minimum prison sentence can get out early is to provide information or testimony that is of “substantial assistance” to prosecutors. What constitutes “substantial assistance” is solely up to the judgment of prosecutors. Make the prosecutor happy, and you go home early. Tell him something that may well be true but doesn’t quite go far enough to win him an indictment or conviction, and you risk giving up a golden opportunity to cut your time. Critics say it’s a system that suborns outright lying.
“Some of these people would fry their own mother to get out of a 25-year drug sentence,” says Judge Melancon. “You’re going against human nature. And you’ve put in a system that lets human nature run amok, that lets information be passed from inmate to inmate, for pay or otherwise. This is something we need to take very, very seriously.”
The problem isn’t new. In 1990 jailhouse informant Leslie Vernon White, an admitted perjurer, showed a 60 Minutes reporter how, even while in prison, he was able to obtain confidential information about pending prosecutions, then fabricate an incriminating story about a suspect and offer it up to prosecutors in exchange for a reduction in his sentence. Despite doubts about his credibility dating back to the late 1970s, prosecutors continued to put White on the stand until the late 1980s. After much publicity, he was finally indicted for perjury in 1992. White had given a similar interview to Time in 1988, prompting the Los Angeles district attorney to conduct a review that turned
up more than 100 cases potentially tainted by informant testimony. The defense bar later came up with more than 200 more.
In a 2005 report on 111 death row exonerations between 1973 and 2004, the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions found that 51 involved false testimony from jailhouse informants looking to cut their time. But such studies are rare, in part because of a lack of information.
“We just don’t know,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at the Loyola School of Law in Los Angeles and a leading expert on the use of informants. “The problem is that we don’t require the government to keep track of how informants are used. Where there have been thorough reviews by journalists—in Chicago, for example—we’ve seen common and persistent abuses. It’s bad enough at the federal level. But we really have no idea at all what goes on at the state and local level.”
Judge Melancon says informant abuse at the federal level was made even worse by amendments to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Broadly speaking, a convicted felon has one year from the date of his sentencing to remember everything he can—to tell the government everything he knows about other criminal activity in exchange for a reduction in his sentence. But amendments passed in 1991, 2002, and 2004 added several exceptions to that rule.
The most problematic of these allows a prisoner to get time off in exchange for information he relays to prosecutors well after the one-year cutoff, if prosecutors believe the prisoner wasn’t aware that the information would have been valuable to them before. Critics say the exception is too vague and too easily manipulated. Prison inmates can now spend the entirety of their sentences monitoring the news and rumor mills for drug prosecutions involving people or places with which they’re even vaguely familiar, then write to prosecutors to offer up information with just enough knowledge of a given town or suspect to appear believable.
“It’s wide open now,” Melancon says. “Everybody in the federal prisons knows what’s going on outside. You’ve got these people with extremely long drug sentences who hear about a drug case in a town they’re familiar with. Now they realize they can tell the government things that happened years ago—true or not—and get time off their sentences.”
Judge James Gray, a drug war critic who sits on the Superior Court of Orange County, California, and also has served as an assistant U.S. attorney, says courts need to give more scrutiny to snitch testimony, and prosecutors need to verify it. “This is a game,” Gray says. “You have lots of people sitting in prison who will do virtually anything to get out. They’ll sell you out in a minute to get out of there. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain. And every guy that guy gives up is going to get his own mandatory minimum sentence. And he then becomes another source of potentially bad information for prosecutors. You can quickly rack up a lot of convictions. But it shouldn’t be surprising if, in the process, you create some cottage industries.”

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