Thursday, November 12, 2009

Petty cash to informants: Routine investigative technique or inducement to perjury?

One of the ways I keep Grits a (relatively) manageable project is by remaining geographically limited, so I haven't followed in more than a cursory fashion the efforts by Illinois prosecutors to legally harass Northwestern University students working with that university's innocence clinic. But given this blog's interest in informant-related issues, I laughed out loud when I read the latest drummed up charges by prosecutors in that case against students from the Northwestern Innocence Project:
According to the court documents, Tony Drakes, one of the witnesses the students believe was involved in the 1978 murder of security guard Donald Lundahl, told state investigators that he "gave the students a video statement for money" and recanted the videotaped statement.

In the prosecutors' documents, Drakes alleges that Sergio Serritella, the private investigator working with the students, gave a taxi driver $60 for what was estimated to be a $6 cab ride home to a bus station near where the 2004 interview took place.

Drakes says the the cab driver gave him "the change" -- about $40 -- which Drakes says he later spent on crack cocaine.
The prosecutors admitted they also paid Drake $10 for gas money in exchange for meeting with them, but that, obviously, is completely different, right? They assure us, harrumph harrumph, that it undoubtedly is.

I find these charges utterly laughable given the day-to-day practices of police and prosecutors regarding so-called "confidential informants." In Dallas, the snitch at the center of the fake drug scandal was paid about $200,000 in fees by police for helping set up two dozen innocent people based solely on snitch testimony and faked field tests for drugs by police. (With what appeared to be overwhelming evidence, nearly all the defendants, mostly non-English speaking legal and illegal residents, took pleas that included deportation.)

Informants get paid cash all the time. But even more than that, they're often granted massive reductions in their own sentences in exchange for testimony - an invaluable commodity that's routinely exchanged for testimony in American courts. entering into a so-called "5-K" snitch agreement with the US Attorney is the only method on the books for securing a downward departure from federal sentencing guidelines (though after a series of recent cases judges now have discretion for downward departure if they explain their reasons). And snitching is also the only ways federal prisoners already locked up can get out sooner than their day for day sentence.

As far as this example goes, the investigator gave the $60 to the cab driver, not the informant. But even if it was intended that the witness would benefit, that kind of thing happens every day when police are making cases. Money in drug stings falls inadvertently (wink, wink) into informants' hands all the time. (See this petty but typical example.) Indeed, one wonders what if any inducement prosecutors gave this fellow, who is now sitting in jail, to change his story, and whether they taped their interview with the witness the way the Innocence Project students did?

Indeed, if $40 could buy false testimony, as these prosecutors allege, then a large amount of testimony in criminal courts should be similarly called into question. I don't know what Illinois' open records laws are like, but it'd be interesting if somebody asked for how much was spent in recent years by the DA and police departments in their jurisdiction for informant payments. I'll bet it's a bloody helluva lot more than $40.

Judging from afar, with no inside knowledge, these don't appear to be serious allegations so much as a trumped up harassment and PR campaign by a District Attorney who's tired of seeing his old cases unraveled by Northwestern students.


Soronel Haetir said...

I find the charge that the student grades depended on finding evidence of innocent convicts far more troublesome if true. As for the rest, the initial headline worried me but the more I read the less concerned I become.

doran said...

At some point it will become accepted for criminal defense attorneys to make payments, similar to that made by law enforcement and prosecutors, to witnesses. As it is now, an attorney or investigator who make such payments stand to be prosecuted for subornation of perjury, even though they are doing exactly the same thing that prosecutors and law enforcement are allowed by the courts to do.

"Exactly the same thing." Cab fare, grocery money, rent money, something with which to buy clothes for the kids. Thats what the State pays it witnesses for, right?

Jeff Gamso said...

And lest we not forget Pennsylvania where the state police paid an informant to have sex with alleged prostitutes. Of course, they also gave him the money to pay for the prostitutes, so they paid both parties to the transaction (actually 4 transactions) to have sex. Then they busted the prostitutes. What makes Commonwealth v. Chon amazing is that the charges were dismissed due to these shenanigans, though the court was careful to note that they wouldn't have been if the crime was more serious.

So there you have it. The cops can't pay witnesses in a prostitution case but they can in a murder case.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Soronel, just to have said it, there's no evidence anyone's grades depended on research outcomes, just an unfounded allegation by the same prosecutors complaining about the $40.

Nick said...

The idea that their grades depended on an exoneration is laughable.

Jackie Buffalo said...

It is legal harassment. Sounds like an oxymoron, I know.
Thank you for bringing this to everyone's attention.
Does anyone know what it's like to be harassed, on a daily basis, for years, and what kind of effect it can have on a child?
The Dallas DA's office paid so many informants to harass me and my child, who was already sick. They actually paid the rent for at least two people for years. Now, I assure you that I am nobody. My son and I weren't engaged in any type of illegal activity and it had to be extremely evident after just a few weeks. I mean, I would give them a few months. But this went on from 2004-2007. I filed complaint after complaint, to no avail, however, that was before I realized they were from the DA's office. The director of these activities was a constable.
I had to promise the attorney who orchestrated my plea after almost a four years' battle over a SIDS death that I would picket his office if he didn't go down to the DA's office and tell them to get Larry downstairs and an officer's father, along with the constable out of our complex and off my kid. Within 5 days the guy downstairs and the officer's father was gone. The constable stayed but it was much easier to deal with only one.
I could easily identify their informants by the Cheshire-cat grin on their faces that read so easily, 'oh, goodie, here comes payday'.
Some of the activities of these individuals was in an effort to entrap me into doing something that could cause an arrest. There were two individuals they paid that wanted to get me into a sexual relationship with them. There was a firefighter who sexually harassed me as I was going for a walk. Sometimes I felt it was a campaign not unlike the ones used in Stasi Germany: old fashioned blackballing along with a few gaslighting techniques with the use of new technology for surveillance. It's sad because I think some people could be driven to suicide under this type of stress for so many years. I figured maybe this was the desired result, or to get me to leave town, or perhaps it was merely a type of vigilantism.
I had to take care of my son, who is much better now, so we moved out of town, and back home.
Not without being arrested, however, on the morning of my birthday in 2007, for operating a website. When no one would take my complaints seriously, I started to photograph the activities and post it to my site. It was always noted that my concern was for my child. I was accused of keeping my child isolated, when of course, their activity of contacting everyone we came in touch with had a very chilling, isolating effect. That, and he was very ill.
What protection is there to keep an investigation from becoming an excuse for an illegal political investigation, or harassment campaign ?

Anonymous said...

response to Jeff Gamso, who said that "The cops can't pay witnesses in a prostitution case but they can in a murder case."

Naw, they just catch them hookin' again, and tell them that if they want to stay out of jail and avoid huge fines, then they better "cooperate".