During appellate argument, a Ninth Circuit panel of federal judges lambasted the California Attorney General’s office for failing to discipline a prosecutor who lied about rewarding a jailhouse snitch. Los Angeles Times story and video of argument (beginning at 16:00 minutes) here. The panel, which included Judges Kozinski, Wardlaw and Fletcher, instructed the government attorney to go back to his office and tell the Attorney General to act on the matter.
National attention is finally turning to the Orange County fiasco. The judge has kicked the entire District Attorney’s Office off the case, largely because so many prosecutors and sheriffs lied under oath to protect their secret records and unconstitutional practices. Dean Erwin Chemerinsky has called for an independent inquiry and major reforms; Al Jazeera has revealed secret recordings of the informant’s negotiation with sheriffs; Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick says the scandal “shows eerie parallels” to other jailhouse informant debacles. Speaking to Slate, Laura Fernandez at Yale Law School concludes that the “massive cover up by both law enforcement and prosecutors…has effectively turned the criminal justice system on its head.”
Hopefully all this attention will finally persuade lawmakers that jailhouse informants are a public policy worth regulating properly at the front end, instead of waiting for some intrepid defense attorney or journalist to uncover a disaster. For jurisdictions that have recently concluded as much, see this post.
Add Detroit to the list of known jailhouse informant scandals. This story–Ring of Snitches: How Detroit Police Slapped False Murder Convictions on Young Black Men–details how during the 1990s, numerous informants obtained “lenient sentences as well as food, drugs, sex and special privileges from detectives in the Detroit Police Department’s homicide division in return for making statements against dozens of prisoners eventually convicted of murder.” The story is eerily reminiscent of the Los Angeles debacle, as well the ongoing scandal in Orange County.
Several states are considering new legislation to regulate informant use. In Texas, HB 564 would ban the use of compensated criminal witnesses in death penalty cases altogether. The bill provides that the “testimony of an informant or of an alleged accomplice of the defendant is not admissible if the testimony is given in exchange for a grant or promise by the attorney representing the state or by another of immunity from prosecution, reduction of sentence, or any other form of leniency or special treatment.” Full story at The Intercept here. Radley Balko at the Washington Post calls the bill a “significant first step” in recognizing the inherent unreliability of informants. As Balko, who has written about informant debacles before, puts it:
“The whole concept of jailhouse informants defies credulity. The very idea that people regularly confess to crimes that could put them in prison for decades or possibly even get them executed to someone they just met in a jail cell and have known for all of a few hours is and has always been preposterous. Not to mention the fact that these are people whose word prosecutors wouldn’t trust under just about any other circumstance.”
In North Carolina, HB 700–which did not pass–would have created comprehensive regulation of jailhouse informants, including corroboration requirements, enhanced discovery, jury instructions, and data collection. Story here. An interesting feature of this bill was that it would have created a “rebuttable presumption of inadmissibility,” placing the burden on the government to show that these risky witnesses should nevertheless be permitted to testify.
From the Orange County Register: Money, cable TV, food delivery: How Mexican Mafia snitches lived like kings behind bars. Here are a few excerpts:
“As two of the most prolific jailhouse informants in Orange and Los Angeles counties, Raymond Cuevas and Jose Paredes befriended suspects in jail and collected information in more than 30 criminal cases, according to a spreadsheet assembled by prosecutors. …For their efforts, Cuevas and Peredes received more than $150,000 from local law enforcement agencies during an 18-month period ending in March, records show.
The pair enjoyed other perks, too, including cable TV in their cells and Del Taco food delivered by officers. Cuevas and Paredes also received leniency on criminal charges that could have sent them to prison for life, according to court transcripts and other records.
Thirty-nine-year-old Cuevas, known as “Puppet,” was arrested four times for armed robbery. His last arrest was on charges of possessing a loaded weapon, a possible third strike that could have sent him to prison for life. Instead, the informant received a deal that allowed him to plead no contest in 2013; he received credit for five years already served but no prison sentence.
For several years, Cuevas was the shot-caller for Latino inmates at Los Angeles’ North County Correctional Facility, according to a ruling from the Second District Court of Appeal. On one occasion, he informed his deputy handler that he had just ordered a knife attack on another inmate as part of a jail turf war, the ruling stated. No action was taken by Los Angeles County deputies to prevent the attack, which left the inmate seriously wounded, the ruling said. Cuevas was not prosecuted for the attack, but two inmates who carried out the order were convicted, according to the appellate ruling.”