“Isaac John Palacios admits he shot and killed a rival gang member, pulling the trigger at least 15 times in a Santa Ana driveway. Last month, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, a crime that often carries a life sentence.
But Palacios walked free hours later from the county jail. Despite the guilty plea, Orange County prosecutors agreed to release the 30-year-old gang member, giving him credit for time served, and dropping charges against him in a second gang killing.
The lenient deal is a casualty of the district attorney’s surreptitious use of jailhouse informants to gather information from suspects awaiting trial and the office’s tardiness in turning over evidence to the defense. This conduct came under legal attack this past year during the prosecution of Orange County’s largest mass killing case. …
The lead prosecutor in the Palacios case, Marc Rozenberg, said he agreed to the deal, in part, because he didn’t want another judge to review evidence of discovery and informant violations. One local judge already ruled prosecutors committed misconduct.”
In this extensive review of the infamous Cameron Todd Willingham case, the Marshall Project zeroes in on the role of the jailhouse informant, Johnny Webb, and the prosecutor who covered up his rewards. Story here: The Prosecutor and the Snitch: Did Texas execute an innocent man? According to the article, Webb “lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.”
In post-trial interviews, Webb said that the prosecutor approached him about testifying:
“[H]e asked Jackson, “What’s going to be my deal?” and Jackson said, “If you help me, that robbery will disappear … even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later.” …“He says, ‘Your story doesn’t have to match exactly… He says, ‘I want you to just say he put fires in the corners. I need you to be able to say that so we can convict him, otherwise we’re going to have a murderer running our streets.’ ” … “He [Jackson] had me believing 100 percent this dude was guilty — that’s why I testified,” Webb said. “The perks — they was willing to do anything to help me. No one has ever done that, so why wouldn’t I help them?” In fact, Webb said, Willingham “never told me nothing.”
The District Attorney’s Office in Orange County is accused of running an unconstitutional jailhouse snitch program, much like the infamous one in Los Angeles that ended twenty years ago. See these stories from the L.A. Times , the Voice of OC, and and Orange County Register. From the Register:
[Defense attorneys] say sheriff’s deputies, including one who worked as a “handler” for jailed informants, arranged for informants to be placed next to selected inmates and lure them into making incriminating statements. Deputies and prosecutors then conspired to hide the fact the men were informants from defense attorneys and pretended their encounters were coincidental, despite the longstanding legal requirement that prosecutors turn over information that could help the defense.
USA Today ran this indepth story about a pay-for-information scheme in the Atlanta jail, in which federal inmates looking for cooperation credit bought information to pass on to their handlers, passing it off as their own knowledge. Story here: Federal prisoners use snitching for personal gain. The story offers an unusually detailed and extensive look at the ways that inmates and informants can game the system, buying and selling information that prosecutors and investigators then reward them for and rely on. In this black market free-for-all, inmates paid tens of thousands of dollars ($250,000 in one case) for information to lower their sentences, while FBI agents relied on snitches who were passing on second-hand uncorroborated information from the street. It is the fourth such scheme uncovered in Atlanta alone in the last 20 years.
A similar pay-for-information scheme was discovered in a federal prison in Louisiana, after Ann Colomb and her three sons were wrongfully convicted based on the testimony of dozens of snitch inmates. See this post: Professional Prison Snitch Ring.
A Texas legislator has just introduced a new bill, H.B. 189, that would bar the use of compensated criminal informants in capital cases. H.B. 189 would make informant and accomplice testimony inadmissible 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.” In effect, the bill embodies the sensible idea that paying criminals for their testimony is simply too unreliable to be used in death penalty cases. The Texas Tribune ran this story: Bill Would Restrict Informant Testimony in Death Cases. The bill would also bar the use of alleged confessions made to jailhouse snitches unless the confessions are corroborated by electronic recordings. In many ways Texas has been on the forefront of this issue–the state already has drug and jailhouse snitch corroboration requirements. See this post: Texas requires corroboration for informant witnesses.