Monday, October 15, 2007

Did Travis County prosecutors fail to report jailhouse snitch deal?

Here's another example why reforms to laws and rules of evidence governing informant testimony must be strengthened to prevent wrongful convictions; jurors may not be aware of a criminal informant's motive for testifying, and potentially for lying.

Chuck Lindell at the Austin Statesman last week reported that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has ordered a trial judge to investigate whether prosecutors concealed snitch testimony in a 2003 capital murder case ("Court orders investigation of inmate's accusation," Oct. 11):
A Travis County judge must investigate a prison inmate's allegations that prosecutors allowed a key witness to provide false testimony during a 2003 capital murder trial, the state's highest criminal court ordered Wednesday.

David Mendez, sentenced to life in prison in the shooting deaths of two Austin men in 1997, alleges in an appeal that the Travis County district attorney's office failed to disclose a deal to reward a jailhouse informant for testimony implicating Mendez in the murders.

Mendez also claims that prosecutors allowed the informant, Paul Alba Jr., to falsely tell jurors that he was not rewarded for his testimony.

Bryan Case Jr., head of the Travis County district attorney's office appeals division, said prosecutors did not help Alba in exchange for his testimony.

"That will all come out in our filings at court," Case said.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, without ruling on the merits of Mendez's allegations, ordered state District Judge Bob Perkins to investigate the claims and forward his findings to the appellate judges within 90 days. Perkins is to collect affidavits from Assistant District Attorneys Buddy Meyer and Gary Cobb, as well as others who may have relevant information.

Mendez "has alleged facts that, if true, might entitle him to relief," the court order stated. "Additional facts are needed."

Alba's testimony was crucial for Travis County prosecutors.
Though all of Texas' major innocence reforms failed during the 2007 Legislature, other states are facing up to the problem, and Texas should follow their lead. Texas already requires corroboration for informants in drug stings, but not in capital cases or other serious offenses. That oversight needs to be corrected when the Legislature reconvenes in 2009.

SEE ALSO: Prior Grits posts about criminal informants.

5 comments:

Daniel, USMC said...

Howdy Grits,

Yeah... this doesn't make any sense. If it's required for the lesser offense it should damn well be required for a capital offense.

This, potentially*, chaps my ass:
A Travis County judge must investigate a prison inmate's allegations that prosecutors allowed a key witness to provide false testimony during a 2003 capital murder trial, the state's highest criminal court ordered Wednesday.

Funny how when you or I do that the DA calls it subornation of perjury. Guess they just call it good business. I doubt I'm in the majority but I'd be in favor of having DA's guilty of willful subornation of perjury serve twice the sentence that the accused would.

* I say potentially because my first job out of the Corps was with the US Marshals service. Prisoners, as a rule, are some untruthful folks when it looks like they can 1) Stick it to any authority figure, 2) Better their lot.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand what the big deal is about so-called "snitch" testimony. Granted, there are many reasons why "snitches" may be less credible than other witnesses. But it's not like the juries don't understand those reasons. Defense lawyers are certainly going to point them out, even if the jurors are so stupid that they don't realize that they should consider motives for testifying. Do we really want judges and legislators deciding who is honest and who is not? Shouldn't that be up to the jury to decide? If not, then what's the point of having juries in the first place?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"there are many reasons why 'snitches' may be less credible than other witnesses. But it's not like the juries don't understand those reasons."

You could say the same about expert witnesses hired by either side, but the courts still apply minimum standards and don't let in every expert and just let the jury decide. If the person isn't really an expert, as defined in the law, they can't be a witness in court. Requiring corroboration for snitch testimony is the same thing - setting a minimum threshold for reliability before allowing prejudicial testimony in court. We've seen enough instances in drug cases where convictions was based on outright fabrications (see this 20-minute video on the Hearne case, if you never have), that it doesn't seem unreasonable to me to set a (far lesser) reliability standard for snitch testimony just like you do the Ph.D.. best,

Anonymous said...

Grits:
The difference is that "experts" are designated as such because they have some sort of specialized knowledge not commonly possessed by laypeople. "Snitches" are simply witnesses like any other who happen to have knowledge about he case.

Court never make a determination as to whether experts are credible or not, they decide only whether the experts testimony would be relevant and helpful to the jury. Unlike experts, snitches are generally testifying about direct evidence in the case. I think the jury should be told about any potential biases that jailhouse informants and co-defendants and the like may have, but a rule requiring jurors to disregard his testimony seems to give the jurors too little credit in sifting the truth from the self-serving fiction.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You've identified the difference between experts and snitches. The similarity is that both are compensated by money or in the snitch's case, reduced culpability for crimes.

Civil litigation shows lawyers can find a paid expert to say just about anything. If prosecutors compensate witnesses, don't you suspect the same thing might be true? Especially when we're talking about crooks in the first place?

They require corroboration in drug cases in TX, and it's not like they've quit prosecuting drug dealers. I don't see the harm in doing the same for other crimes, and can see a great deal of benefit as far as accountability.