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.”
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.'”
Pamela Colloff has written this extraordinary investigative series into the government’s use of jailhouse informants. She zeroes in on Paul Skalnik, a prolific and stunningly unreliable informant who escaped punishment for many of his own crimes, including child molestation. The first piece is entitled How This Con Man’s Wild Testimony Sent Dozens to Jail, and 4 to Death Row, and was jointly published by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine. Among the many people Skalnik sent to jail is James Dailey whom many believe to be innocent: Dailey is currently on death row. From the article:
“In jail, it is widely understood that helping prosecutors and the police can earn extraordinary benefits, from reduced sentences to dismissed charges. By the time Dailey’s trial began the following summer in Clearwater, in June 1987, no fewer than three inmates had come forward claiming to have heard Dailey confess to the killing. The first two worked in the jail’s law library, where they professed to have heard Dailey say about the murder, “I’m the one that did it.” They also told the jury of ferrying several handwritten notes between Dailey and Pearcy; in the letters shown to the jury, Dailey appeared eager to appease his co-defendant, whom prosecutors planned to put on the stand. But the two jailhouse informants were eclipsed by a third inmate, who had contacted Halliday to say that he had some information. He told a much more damning story — one that placed Dailey at the scene of the crime and put the knife in his hand. It was exactly what prosecutors needed. That witness was Paul Skalnik, a familiar figure around the Pinellas County Courthouse. He had appeared before the court numerous times as a jailhouse informant and was skilled at providing the sort of incendiary details that brought a defendant’s guilt into sudden, terrible focus.”
Colloff writes more about the Dailey case here: A Liar Put Him on Death Row. His Co-Defendant Could Help Set Him Free. Why Won’t He?
Here is an important op-ed in USA Today from Miriam Krinsky and Ronal Serpas: “Stop letting prosecutors get away with threatening murder.” They chronicle the misuse of informants by law enforcment in Orange County and across the country. About Orange Country, they write:
“Prosecutors used informants to do what would have been illegal for them to do directly — question individuals awaiting trial without their lawyer present and, even worse, use threats of murder and violence to coerce confessions. . . . These practices fly in the face of the fundamental duty of prosecutors: to seek truth and pursue justice.”
Krinsky is a former federal prosecutor and now the Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution. Serpas is former Chief of Police for New Orleans and now Professor of Criminology at Loyola University.
I write critically about criminal informants, but it bears remembering how they enabled the FBI to break the mafia. In June, mob boss “Cadillac Frank” Salemme was convicted of ordering the murder of a witness. Key witnesses against Salemme included Stephen “Rifleman” Flemmi, infamous killer informant in his own right who avoided the death penalty by testifying against Salemme and others. Salemme himself had been living under federal witness protection for having testified for the government over a decade ago. As one lawyer commented about the old mafia leadership, “Everybody’s been burned to a crisp here by informants.”
Whether it’s good public policy to cut deals with murderers in order to go after other murderers is a subject of long debate. At least some in Congress didn’t think so–see this report: Everything Secret Degenerates: the FBI’s Use of Murderers as Informants. It is now a violation of Department of Justice guidelines for the FBI to permit one of its informants to commit a violent crime, but violent criminals get leniency all the time in exchange for cooperation.