Here’s a story of violent irony. Last Friday, two young New Jersey women were sentenced for participating in the execution of a friend–Latyria Nealy–because the gang to which all three women belonged thought Nealy might be snitching. Having lured Nealy to her death on suspicion of being a snitch, one of the women, Nikki Moore, then became an informant herself, providing “significant, extensive, and comprehensive” cooperation which earned her two years off her 12-year sentence. The other defendant apparently also cooperated in some fashion but did not get any credit. Story here: Pair Sentenced in Gang Execution: Asbury Park Woman Killed for being a ‘Snitch’. The irony, of course, lies in the cycle of violence in which people work off their sentences for killing suspected informants by becoming informants themselves. The deeper challenge is helping young people surrounded by crime who are caught in the middle–between violent gangs that threaten those who talk, and a criminal system that punishes those who remain silent.
Dynamics of Snitching
Last week, a federal jury decided that two Los Angeles police officers violated a young woman’s constitutional rights by falsely labeling her a snitch–a label that led to her death–and then failing to protect her. L.A. Times stories here and here. In an effort to get gang member Jose Ledesma to confess to a murder, police told him that Puebla had identified him as the shooter, even forging her signature on a fake photo array, although Puebla never identified Ledesma. At the same time, the jury found that Puebla and her parents also contributed to her death, and awarded no money to the family.
This is an interesting case for a number of reasons. First, the government is rarely held accountable for its use of or failure to protect informants, so the jury’s conclusion that the police violated Puebla’s constitutional rights by using her in the ruse and then failing to protect her could support future cases. Here is a link to the complaint in the case: Puebla v. Los Angeles, Case No. 08-3128. For another example of the trend(?) towards greater protection for informants–particularly young vulnerable ones–see this post on Florida’s new informant legislation. At the same time, the Los Angeles jury apparently believed that Puebla and her family significantly contributed to her danger–finding the family 80% responsible and the police only 20% at fault. While it is unclear from the Times article why the jury came to this conclusion, the public and the criminal system often blame informants for their own injuries or even death, on the theory that they take the risk by becoming informants in the first place. In this case, the government argued that Puebla was killed, not because of the police ruse, but because she testified months later at a hearing in which she said that Ledesma was gang-affiliated.
On Friday, a Denver jury convicted Willie Clark in the killing of Denver Bronco Darrent Williams during a drive-by shooting. Much of the case, although not all, was based on the testimony of heavily rewarded criminal informants. Stories here and here. One witness in particular, Daniel “Ponytail” Harris, admitted to being in the car from which the bullets came, and testified that he saw Clark, and only Clark, shoot out the window at the limousine in which Williams was riding. Harris was facing a life sentence for an unrelated federal drug charge, but in exchange for his testimony, he will see that sentence cut down to five years. He will also avoid being prosecuted for the shooting himself. Another witness, gang member Vernone Edwards, will get a decade shaved off his crack-cocaine trafficking sentence. This sort of heavily compensated, self-serving testimony is one of the prime reasons that informant testimony has become such a problematic source of error. Three alternate and released jurors who spoke to reporters after the case was over said they did not believe Harris. One of the lead prosecutors in Harris’s drug case candidly explained that prosecutors can only do their best to determine whether such witnesses are telling the truth.
It used to be that informant unreliability issues were litigated, if at all, on habeas, or by volunteer attorneys at innocence projects long after the case was over. Those days are coming to an end. With heightened public and media awareness of the problem, I predict that we will see more cases in which the problem of informant reliability is addressed early on in the process, at trial or on appeal, and not, as so often has happened in the past, as an afterthought or not at all.
While we may never know what actually happened between DEA Agent Lee Lucas and his informant Jerrell Bray–a hazardous partnership that rocked Cleveland for the last few years– their story reveals the many dangers that arise when law enforcement hitches its wagon to criminal snitches. In 2007, the Cleveland Plain Dealer began extensive reporting on allegations that Bray, a convicted killer and drug dealer, was using his relationship to the DEA to frame rivals and innocent people and that Agent Lucas had lied to make cases. Eventually, over a dozen convictions were reversed, including those of people who pleaded guilty. Story here. Bray was convicted of perjury and is currently serving 14 years; Agent Lucas was prosecuted for perjury and obstruction of justice. Last month, a jury acquitted Agent Lucas of all 18 charges. Story here. Law enforcement agents are rarely prosecuted for relying on bad informants, so the Plain Dealer’s coverage offers a rare glimpse into the ways that an informant can shape–or deform–official decisions.
Here’s part 3 of the NPR series on informants–this one focuses on how ICE sometimes uses non-citizens as informants and then lets them be deported once they are no longer useful: Retired Drug Informant Says He Was Burned (NPR), and Informants can greatly aid US authories but still face deportation (LA Times). Deportation poses special dangers to informants, who may be killed upon returning to their home countries, in much the same way that domestic informants face special dangers in local jails and prisons or even on the streets. The government is under little legal obligation to protect its sources. For example, after he gave his FBI handler a tip, Charles Shuler was shot and paralyzed because the FBI blew his cover. A court dismissed Shuler’s lawsuit, ruling that the FBI did not owe him protection. Stories like these reflect the more general phenomenon that informants who lack counsel, education, or other resources are often vulnerable to official exploitation.