The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission declared yesterday that Gregory Taylor was wrongfully convicted of murder, 17 years ago, based on a combination of undisclosed forensic evidence, flawed eyewitness testimony, and a jailhouse snitch. L.A. Times story here; see also here for details of the hearing. North Carolina is the only state to have created a governmental commission that directly reviews post-conviction innocence claims, although other states are considering it given the large number of exonerations in recent years. Several states (e.g. California, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin) have commissions to review the systemic sources of wrongful convictions and to propose reforms. See previous post.
Last week I did the Patt Morrison Show on KPCC (you can listen here), with prize-winning former L.A.Times investigative reporter Ted Rohrlich. Over the years he’s done some great stories on informants. For example, in Trading Lies for Freedom, Rohrlich reported on several professional jailhouse snitches in the Los Angeles County jail system, including the now-infamous Leslie Vernon White of 60 Minutes fame. The piece describes the “variety of techniques” used by snitches to fabricate confessions:
To gather the information that will make a confession appear plausible, informants have used a variety of techniques, ranging from the artful to the crude. Some informants, for example, have carefully maintained files of newspaper and magazine articles on sensational criminal cases, or have stolen legal documents from the cells of other inmates. They have conned fellow prisoners, even those who have insisted on their innocence, into giving up key details of the cases against them. Some have pretended to be jailhouse lawyers offering free advice. Others merely have asked why someone is in jail, then transformed the most sincere protestations of innocence into admissions of guilt. Informants have purchased information from other informants for money, candy or cigarettes. Some informants have testified that they received inside information from police.
In Authorities Go Fishing for Jailhouse Confessions, Rohrlich described how some detectives purposefully placed suspects in the LA jail “snitch tank,” hoping that the resident informants would come up with incriminating confessions. The story begins as follows:
The homicide detective thought he knew the identity of a murderer but couldn’t prove it. To make his case, he wanted a confession. But his suspect wouldn’t talk. Los Angeles Police Detective Philip Sowers did what one prosecutor said a lot of detectives do. He turned to the informant tank at Los Angeles County Jail for help. Sowers arranged for jailers to place his suspect, who was not an informant, in the special section of the jail reserved for informants — inmates who habitually tell police that other inmates have confessed to murders or other serious crimes. Within days, Sowers had reports from four informants, known to detectives as “friendlies,” that his suspect had confessed.
Finally, Rohrlich wrote a more recent piece on the Rampart scandal, entitled Scandal Shows Why Innocent Plead Guilty. This is a particularly important article because it describes a common but nearly invisible problem in the criminal system: how the plea bargaining process pressures innocent people to plead guilty.
Joseph Jones had quite a choice. He could plead guilty to selling drugs he had not sold and serve eight years in prison. Or he could risk being convicted at trial and, as a three-time loser, be sentenced to life. Ex-felon Miguel Hernandez was offered a similarly absurd “break.” He could give up 16 months of his life by pleading guilty to possessing a weapon he had never had. Or he could demand a trial and face the possibility of four or more years in prison. In offering criminal defendants these kinds of Hobson’s choices, prosecutors and judges did not set out to induce innocent men to plead guilty–although that is what they did. The prosecutors and judges merely accepted the word of Los Angeles police that the men were guilty.
While this piece tells the story of innocent people who pled guilty because police gave false information, a similar dynamic is at work when innocent people are confronted with false information from a snitch.
Each of these articles is important in its own right, shedding light on specific criminal justice failures. They also remind us that journalism plays a crucial role in maintaining the accountability of a criminal process that rarely volunteers information about its own mistakes.
The federal rules of criminal procedure have special re-sentencing provisions for informants who provide information after they have already started serving their sentences. Rule 35(b)(2) permits a court to reduce a prisoner’s sentence if the government asks the court to do so more than one year after sentencing. Rule 35(b)(1) governs such requests made less than a year after sentencing. Approximately 1,700 federal prisoners got such sentence reductions in fiscal year 2008. At least one federal judge, Judge Tucker Melancon (D-LA), has complained that inviting inmates to provide information while they are in prison is an invitation to fabrication. See post: Professional prison snitch ring.
Last month, the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion interpreting Rule 35(b)(2). In U.S. v. Shelby, the court held that a district judge contemplating a motion for a sentence reduction can only reduce the sentence based on the extent of the defendant’s cooperation, and not on the more general sentencing factors contained in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) which judges are required to consider when initially sentencing defendants. By contrast, the Sixth Circuit has held that judges can consider 3553(a)’s general sentencing factors–which include things such as a defendant’s likelihood of rehabilitation, prior criminal record, and other personal history–when resentencing under 35(b)(2).
This may seem like an esoteric point, but it is important for several reasons. First, it affects thousands of sentences each year. Second, judges can consider the 3553(a) factors in refusing to reduce a cooperator’s sentence; they just can’t consider those factors if they want to lower the sentence. The Sixth Circuit deemed this to be an unfair “one-way rachet”–the Seventh Circuit didn’t. Shelby also resists the general tide of recent federal case law that favors judicial discretion, since United States v. Booker restored sentencing discretion to federal judges. (See Sentencing Law and Policy blog for detailed discussions of Booker-related developments.) The Seventh Circuit, and other circuits that agree with it, have curtailed that discretion when it comes to rewarding post-sentence cooperation.
Finally, this case is a reminder of how central snitching is to federal criminal law. With the abolition of parole, federal offenders are required to serve nearly their entire sentences, regardless of their conduct in prison, further education, or other rehabilitation. As this case makes case abundantly clear, the only chance they have to earn early release is to give information to the government.
Today’s Huffington Post reports on the recent death row exonerations of Yancy Douglas and Paris Powell–both men were convicted based solely on in-custody or “jailhouse” snitch testimony. The post was written by John Terzano, president of the Washington D.C.-based Justice Project, which has produced a report on jailhouse snitch use and policy recommendations. Here’s an excerpt from the post:
These exonerations highlight the power prosecutors have in securing convictions by utilizing in-custody informant testimony, even when no physical evidence links a defendant to the crime. Testimony by in-custody informants or “jailhouse snitches” as they are often referred, is a leading cause of wrongful convictions. With little to lose, jailhouse snitches have great incentives to provide false information to prosecutors in exchange for leniency or other forms of compensation. Deals that are made between prosecutors and jailhouse snitches do not often come to light when a jury has to weigh the evidence is a case.
I recommend this recent feature article in Reason Magazine by Radley Balko, entitled Guilty Before Proven Innocent. It tells the mind-blowing story of an innocent family in Louisiana, Ann Colomb and her three sons, who were wrongfully convicted of drug trafficking based on the testimony of numerous prison snitches. The informants were part of an information-selling network inside the federal prison, in which inmates purchased files and photographs to help them fabricate testimony which they then marketed to prosecutors in order to get sentence reductions. A bunch of inmates got hold of the Colomb file, and told prosecutors that they would testify against the family. If it werent for a few chance encounters that revealed the scam, the Colomb family would still be in federal prison.
I like this story because it highlights some classic problems with criminal informants. It also illustrates the scale of the phenomenon–and its potential for massive miscarriages of justice– in ways that may be surprising to people unfamiliar with the daily workings of the criminal process.
As the story illustrates, criminal informants are a primary (and infamous) source of wrongful convictions. Check out the link to the Northwestern University Law School report entitled The Snitch System on the left. Second, there are a lot of them: the government planned to use dozens of prison snitches against the Colomb family, and presiding Judge Tucker Melancon indicated that the phenomenon was pervasive. Third, prosecutors rely heavily on them even when the government should be suspicious. The prosecutor in the Colomb case did not appear to know that his prison snitch witnesses were selling information to each other and then lying about it; rather, he took them at their word even though he knew they had massive incentives to lie. Perhaps most importantly, the story shows how snitching has become commonly understood as a way for suspects and inmates to game the system. The Louisiana snitch ring sold information for thousands of dollars inside and outside the prison. This business plan was a response to a central fact about the U.S. criminal process–that information and leniency are traded freely between offenders and the government without rigorous fact-checking. This case just took it to a new level.