Remember Jack Abramoff, the corrupt lobbyist who defrauded Indian tribes of millions and used the money to bribe members of Congress and White House officials? In 2008 he was sentenced to four years of incarceration for multiple offenses, decades less than he might have received, in exchange for his cooperation. Now Abramoff is headed back to prison for . . . corrupt lobbying. Abramoff joins a long line of repeat offender informants who commit serious crimes, cooperate in exchange for leniency, and then continue committing those very same offenses. It is one of the costs of running the criminal system as a marketplace in which guilt and information can be so easily and routinely traded: we send the message that informants can earn impunity, and that they can work off even the most serious crimes if they are useful enough to the government. I worried about the Abramoff case back in 2009 here. As I wrote back then, “this is the perennial dilemma with snitches: it is very hard to know whether we are actually getting more security and justice by letting them off the hook, or whether we too easily forgive serious wrongdoing in the name of cooperation.”
Archives for 2020
Eye-popping series of articles on whistleblowing Officer Murashea Bovell. Bovell recorded fellow Officer John Campo who admitted that he helped an informant continue to sell drugs in exchange for help arresting low-level buyers. This is exactly backwards: protecting big fish dealers who turn in their little fish users. From the article:
“Campo’s claim that he personally safeguarded the drug dealer’s bundle of crack was made in one of several phone calls secretly recorded by Bovell between 2017 and this year. In that and another recording, Campo claimed that members of the department’s narcotics unit allowed favored drug dealers to sell with impunity, get deliveries, and control territory. In exchange, he said, the dealers, serving as confidential informants, gave them information leading to the arrests of their own low-level clients.”
“Lawrence Mottola, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, said police should be very cautious about using informants involved in domestic violence. ‘It’s natural to feel that you’re emboldened by this because you have the backing of the police and they’re going to help you if you get stuck in a situation,’ he said. ‘It’s potentially very dangerous for everyone in that household or in that relationship. And domestic violence cases are already extremely dangerous.'”
Check out this interview with Nick Taiber, former City Council member in Cedar Falls, Iowa, who became an drug informant when he was a teenager, and Luke Hunt, former FBI agent and now professor. Taiber describes how police pressured him at age 17 to become an informant after a car accident. Hunt says “What’s most troubling to me is a very common scenario in which the police compel an informant to do certain operational acts because they have a tremendous amount of power and leverage over the person.” More here from Slate: How Police Turn Teens Into Informants.
Ramon Ward was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1994 based on the testimony of two jailhouse informants and sentenced to life in prison. Twenty-five years later, the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office in Detroit moved to vacate his conviction and he was released in February of this year. Story from The New Republic here: He Was Wrongly Imprisoned for 25 Years. It Wasn’t DNA Evidence That Got Him Out.
Of particular note, Ward’s wrongful conviction was secured in part because Detroit police went around the prosecutor’s office to obtain benefits for their informants directly from the judge. As one prosecutor actually observed during Ward’s trial, “promises of leniency are made to these snitches without approval—or prior knowledge—which exceeds police authority and violates our policies.” That same prosecutor worried about wrongful conviction: “I have been told,” he wrote, “that snitches do lie about overhearing confessions and fabricate admissions in order to obtain police favors or obtain the deals they promised.”
Ward was not alone: his wrongful conviction was part of a pattern of Detroit police practices in the 1990’s.
The Connecticut Supreme Court has decided that informant experts like myself are admissible when they can provide specialized information to jurors about informant unreliability, namely, information that jurors would not otherwise know based on common sense or from the popular culture or general media. The Supreme Court upheld the exclusion of my testimony in this particular case, but noted that such testimony is not per se inadmissible, and it imagined other scenarios in which expert testimony might be admitted. The 2019 case, State v. Leniart, overturned this 2016 decision, in which the Connecticut Court of Appeals held that the trial judge made a mistake in preventing me from testifying before the jury.
I explain what the Leniart decision means in more detail in this piece for The Appeal: Why Juries Need Expert Help Assessing Jailhouse Informants. In particular, I explain why jurors are unlikely to understand the full scope of informant practices, fabrications, and motivations to lie, and therefore would be helped by hearing expert testimony:
“Informants are highly motivated to give persuasive, believable testimony in exchange for their own freedom. They can also receive money, drugs, sex, food, and phone privileges when they cooperate with jail officials. Some scour the newspapers, pay other inmates for information, or get family members to pull court records so that they can come up with incriminating testimony against their cellmates. Some jurors may already know about these sorts of practices; many will not.”