Thursday, August 04, 2011

Snitching here, there and yon

Grits wanted to point out a few notable items from out of state related to snitching, or the use of criminal informants by law enforcement:

First, in California the Legislature has passed a bill to require corroboration for jailhouse informants over the strident objection of the CA District Attorneys Association, reports the Los Angeles Times. Gov. Brown signed the legislation Monday. Notably, in 2009 the Innocence Project of Texas asked state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa to carry similar legislation in Texas requiring corroboration for jailhouse snitches - a bill passed unanimously that year in both chambers and signed into law by Governor Perry. But fewer recall that back in 2001, Hinojosa (then a House member) passed legislation requiring corroboration for informants in drug stings. And of course, accomplice testimony has required corroboration for years, and language from the accomplice witness rule was used to craft both Texas' jailhouse and drug snitch statutes.

Such half-measures, though, don't resolve all the problems surrounding police-informant culture, since of course informants are used throughout the justice system, not just in jails or drug stings. Last year Sasha Natapoff - perhaps the nation's leading expert on the subject - wrote that "The key to informant unreliability is not whether the informant is involved in drugs or in jail, but whether he expects a benefit and therefore has a motivation to lie. Nebraska takes the right approach in this regard by defining 'informant' to include 'any criminal suspect, whether or not he is detained or incarcerated, who received a deal, promise, inducement or benefit.' Neb. Rev. Stat. 29-1929. In defining informant broadly, the Nebraska legislature reasoned that 'there is a compelling state interest in providing safeguards against the admission of testimony the reliability of which may be or has been compromised through improper inducements.'"

The subject of criminal informants is receiving increased national scrutiny from researchers. Natapoff wrote the other day that it's "rare to get [as] much data about informant practices" as is contained in an extensive recent report on the subject from ACLU-New Jersey. She has also recently recommended a report out of Mississippi on informant related abuses, as well as a study from "NYU Law School's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice titled "Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the 'Homegrown Threat' in the United States." The latter document "examines three recent high profile domestic terrorism cases, in all of which informants played a central role, and argues that the use of compensated informants is creating the perception of a threat in U.S. Muslim communities where none may have existed before."

Finally, check out an review by Gary Marx of Natapoff's excellent book: Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. Marx believes that "not only should criminal justice practitioners and students be required to read it, they should be tested on it." For my money, the same goes for legislators sitting on any criminal-justice related committee.

MORE: A helpful reader from Florida points out this remarkable case from the Sunshine State involving police misconduct allegations related to informants. According to the South Florida Times:
According to several sources, the officers are accused  of forcing a man at gunpoint to arrange a drug buy from two other men. They then allegedly took the man outside city limits into Oakland Park, where the drug deal was scheduled to take place at a hotel. In the police report, they referred to the man as a ‘confidential informant’ and allegedly fabricated the circumstances surrounding the arrests of the other two men.

The officers could face armed kidnapping, theft, perjury and other charges, according to sources.


Anonymous said...

Grits, Texas prosecutors are routinely required to disclose any "deals," promises or offers of leniency, etc., in regard to witnesses called at trial. This is a common subject of cross-examination by defense attorneys. As you've noted, Texas has been pretty progressive in addressing the pitfalls of testimony by jailhouse snitches and accomplices. With that said, it should come as no big surprise that criminals associate with, brag to and make admissions to other turds. That's just reality. In my experience, juries are quite capable of evaluating and giving appropriate weight to this type of evidence. Sometimes they buy it. Sometimes they don't.

Anonymous said...

Prosecutors may be required to disclose these deals but we know some don't follow the rules. Smith County is infamous for making these undisclosed deals. They avoid making an explicit deal, even though the snitch knows he's getting a deal, just so the snitch can deny the existence of deal when he testifies. Prosecutorial misconduct is a pervasive problem within the system, so just saying there is a rule about something doesn't mean its followed. We've seen this type of misconduct in the Kerry Cook case, the Willingham case, and, many, many other cases.

Anonymous said...

What prosecutor misconduct was there in the Willingham case?

Anonymous said...

'At the time that Webb came forward against Willingham, he was facing charges of robbery and forgery. During Willingham’s trial, another inmate planned to testify that he had overheard Webb saying to another prisoner that he was hoping to “get time cut,” but the testimony was ruled inadmissible, because it was hearsay. Webb, who pleaded guilty to the robbery and forgery charges, received a sentence of fifteen years. Jackson, the prosecutor, told me that he generally considered Webb “an unreliable kind of guy,” but added, “I saw no real motive for him to make a statement like this if it wasn’t true. We didn’t cut him any slack.” In 1997, five years after Willingham’s trial, Jackson urged the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant Webb parole. “I asked them to cut him loose early,”

In addition to the arson evidence, a jailhouse informant named Johnny Webb claimed Willingham confessed that he set the fire to hide an injury or death of one of the girls, caused by his wife[14], although none of the girls at the time of death were found to have physical injuries still distinguishable after the effects of the fire.[15] Webb later told a reporter for The New Yorker, "it's very possible I misunderstood what he said. Being locked up in that little cell makes you kind of crazy. My memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of medication at the time. Everyone knew that."[1]. At Willingham's trial, Webb offered an explanation for the individual, distinguishable burns that were found on Amber's forehead and arm, stating that Willingham confessed to burning her twice with a piece of "wadded up" paper in an effort to make it appear as though the children were "playing with fire"[14]. Webb was later diagnosed bipolar and even the prosecutor described Webb as "an unreliable kind of guy", yet after Webb's testimony Jackson successfully got him released from prison early. Webb later sent Jackson a Motion to Recant Testimony, that declared, "Mr. Willingham is innocent of all charges." Willingham's attorneys were not notified and Webb later recanted his recantation. Webb later said, "The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?"[1].

Sounds to me like there was an undisclosed deal.

Anonymous said...

Also, in the Graves case, wasn't there a witness who wasn't in jail but was supposedly delivering some food to a jailer and allegedly overheard a conversation. If I remember correctly, this witness later had some type of charges against him dropped, but of course, no deal was disclosed.

Anonymous said...

Prisoners have a lot of time on their hands. Some like to talk. What do they have to talk about? Often they entertain each other with the interesting details of their crimes. Some criminals really get off on these violent details. They may brag about how they raped a woman (let's say your sister). This previously unreported information must be suppressed. No snitching. Some crimes should never be solved.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

2:39, try reading, and maybe even thinking (don't hurt yourself, though), before typing out your thoughts. Nobody said don't ever use jailhouse snitch testimony, just that it needs to be corroborated.

The Homeless Cowboy said...

I have been unfortunate enough to have been in "cop-out" court a few times, for those un initiated thats where your lawyer makes a deal with the prosecutor for your case. The prosecutor offered me 10 years and my lawyers said "when you go before the judge , he will ask if you have been made any promises for your plea of guilty and you must say no then the prosecutor makes the recommendation and the judge passes sentence. No snitching involved but a backroom deal none the less Im sure many other types of deals are slid through Texas courts.

Deborah said...

Homeless Cowboy, Unfortunately my husband (who is in prison on a parole revocation) was the victim of the sort of "back court deal" you speak of. His lawyer, then Rusty (I forget his last name!) made a deal with the prosecutor for 15 years for 'theft by check' and he had two priors. He too is bipolar (1-I think, and not on any kind of medication.). He has been in prison for two years now, for being out of the State of Texas without written permission of his parole officer (he did not have one-- they never reissued one when his parole officer quit/retired, but supposedly there was a blue warrant out?). (We are fighting this with a section 2254, 2241 and 1983 in federal court right now!). But violent offenders, such as the guy who hurt his baby girl and the one who hurt that gay man just for being gay, are being let out on parole (or being considered?) My husband is not violent! He didn't rape, molest, or hurt anyone! He wrote an $1,100 bad check 20+ years ago! (sorry for the venting, but it really "fries" me, when I see violent offenders and drunk drivers being arrested for the 10th time, after they were let out on parole! Grits, can you address this issue? Why are non-violent offenders being kept inside, while violent offenders are being allowed to 'walk' and why are the ones that parole KNOWS will violate their parole being let outside, while the ones who only want to get home to their beloveds are being kept inside? Thanks.

Kevin Stouwie said...


I must respectfully disagree with your factual assertion that "non-violent offenders (are) being kept inside, while violent offenders are being allowed to 'walk'" It may seem that way, but that is not the reality.

First, you have to understand that, for all 3g offenses (most of the violent offenders, the law mandates that the offender serve half of their sentence before they are even eligible for parole. Even when they are eligible, it is very common that such offenders will be denied their first parole eligibility. Moreover, the length of the set off for violent offenders is very often MUCH longer than the length of the set off for non-violent offenders.

Finally, the liklihood of a parole protest is much higher for a violent offender.

I have plenty of constructive criticism for the BPP. However, nobody ought to make the assumption that the Board is keeping all the non violent offenders locked up and letting the violent offenders off easy, because that just is not true.

An offender who has a parole violation that results in a parole revocation will generally stand a pretty decent chance at parole, depending upon the nature of the parole violation itself.

Good luck!

Hook Em Horns said...

Lesson # 1 from any reputable defense counsel, keep your mouth shut while in jail. Not a word about anything to anyone.