Saturday, December 03, 2005

Snitching reforms from other states cited

The Miami Herald has the story of a jailhouse snitch who recanted after falsely accusing a Florida defendant of confessing to strangling the victim ("Jailhouse Informers: A risky bet," Nov. 24). (Regular readers know Grits has long been interested in confidential informant policies, since false snitch testimony ranks among the leading causes of wrongful convictions and other questionable police practices.) The Herald outlined several reforms proposed in other states to improve the informant system. The paper reported:

In response to problems with the use of jailhouse informants, some lawmakers and courts have increased restrictions on their use by prosecutors:

  • Illinois: In any capital case in which prosecutors are using a jailhouse snitch, a judge must conduct a pretrial conference to determine if the informant is reliable.

  • California: Whenever prosecutors have a snitch testify, a judge instructs jurors "the informant should be viewed with caution and close scrutiny" and to consider how much the testimony may have been influenced by favors or leniency from prosecutors.

  • Courts in a handful of other states, including Oklahoma, Montana, Mississippi and Louisiana, have adopted similar jury instructions. Courts in Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, California and Illinois have determined that credibility of a witness - even an informant - is up to the jury to decide.

  • The American Bar Association's ruling body in February recommended that prosecutors carefully limit snitch testimony "ensuring that no prosecution should occur based solely upon uncorroborated jailhouse informant testimony."

Corroboration, new warnings in jury instructions and heightened judicial review all would be important reforms to the snitch process, which could also be improved by granting informants a right to counsel before they agree to cooperate with police officers or prosecutors, and by notifying defense attorneys of snitch arrangements before trial. While some folks want to "stop snitching," a far more useful and realistic goal would be to reform the practice to mitigate the worst abuses. Obviously many other states are ahead of Texas in that regard.

Texas has had our share of lying snitches, too. In addition to citing proposed reforms, the Herald listed these other recent high profile cases involving mendacious informants:

  • 1989: Leslie Vernon White, a longtime jailhouse informant in Los Angeles, admitted lying in a dozen cases. A grand jury later found widespread problems with the use of snitches and complicity by police and prosecutors.

  • 2001: Prosecutors in Colorado, Florida, South Carolina and Missouri dropped 26 drug cases because an informant who received $2 million in payments over 12 years lied under oath dozens of times.

  • 2004: A state court in California threw out the murder conviction of Thomas Goldstein because of an unreliable jailhouse snitch, 24 years after he testified.

  • 2005: A California man serving a murder sentence was granted a new trial when the jailhouse informant who testified against him was found by a judge to lack credibility.

UPDATE: And they just keep coming. Via Drug War Rant, the Los Angeles Times had another story this week about a confidential informant making wrongful accusations on behalf of the DEA ("Snagging a rogue snitch," Dec. 2).

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This Illinois "judge must conduct a pretrial conference to determine if the informant is reliable" is worthless. Asking an assembly of lawyers and cops will not find truth, only check the plausibility of stories. Judges need fact-checkers to find out what's been lied about, what is actually true, and what isn't known.

Such a policy would kill 95% of search warrants outright, and would put lying cops in jail.

The Ghosts of Blogs Past said...

I like the California plan. That way, the jury's first impression of the CI is "oh yeah, this person IS a criminal ... maybe I should be skeptical of what (s)he says." Anonymous has a good point -- especially if the judge is a former prosecutor, I don't see how this plan does much good for the defendant.

Oh right, I should be studying this stuff for my Crim Pro exam next Wed. That class was kind of disappointing ... prof was kind of hard to follow. -- L