An appellate court in Maryland has ruled that a comment on the defendant’s girlfriend’s MySpace page was properly admitted at his murder trial. The comment read: “Free Boozy!!! Just remember snitches get stitches!! U know who you are!!” Daily Record story here. The comment was proffered by the government to explain why a key witness had failed to identify the defendant at a previous trial. The decision is significant for a number of reasons. For example, it shows how comments made on social networking sites by friends and family may be admissible against defendants. It also elevates common phrases such as “snitches get stitches” and “no snitching” and potentially even rap lyrics to the status of specific threat. For a more general discussion of the use of rap lyrics against defendants, see this post: “”Stop Snitching” rap song on YouTube leads to convictions.”
Threats to Informants
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.
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.
NPR is running a three-part series on the federal informant connected to the so-called House of Death murders that occurred six years ago in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico: The Case of a Confidential Informant Gone Wrong. For additional coverage of this story, see this 2007 Dallas Observer feature entitled House of Death. The informant, who was known as “Lalo” to his handlers, was working for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) even as he participated in drug-cartel-ordered executions. Top ICE officials deny knowledge of the murders and claim that “rogue agents” failed to follow guidelines, while Lalo’s handler, Agent Raul Bencomo, says his supervisors knew about the killings. According to NPR, ICE withheld information about Lalo’s role in the murders from the DEA and from Mexican officials. Former DEA Special Agent Phil Jordan describes the Lalo case as a disaster in which every rule was broken.
Even if the man was John Gotti in his prime, you do not allow an informant to run the investigation; you do not let the informant commit felonies, to commit murder. In my mind, he was given a license to kill.
Jordan testified in the now-defunct civil suit against ICE brought by relatives of the slain House of Death victims, two of whom were U.S. residents.
Lalo has been in federal custody for five years. Now that the case against Lalo’s target is over, ICE is trying to deport him back to Mexico.
To what extent should the government employ and reward murderers, drug dealers, and other criminals as informants? In a developing case in Texas, the U.S. government is trying to figure out who killed one of its Mexican drug cartel informants. Turns out it might have been another U.S.-run informant. Story here.
I bring up this incident because it illustrates a bunch of key issues. One is just a matter of scale: there are now so many informants in the system that we get cases like these in which the government is running the people on both sides of the crime. That’s how deep the phenomenon runs.
Second: The government routinely permits serious criminals to remain at large because they are useful, even though they are highly likely to commit new crimes. As one former U.S. special agent remarked about the Texas case, federal officials knew that their informant’s job was tracking down people that the cartel wanted to execute. Given that, they “probably should have known he was conspiring to kill someone.” Now they’re mad because he may have killed one of their other informants. The problem of government-tolerated snitch crime is an old problem. Check out the 2004 congressional report at the left entitled “Everything Secret Degenerates: The FBI’s Use of Murderers as Informants.” Congress found it appalling that the FBI let known mob murderers remain at large because they were snitching on their rival mafia counterparts. In Chapter Five of my book, I document how the toleration for informant wrongdoing is widespread and can worsen crime and insecurity in inner city communities.
Finally, the Texas story reminded me of Troy Smith. As part of his informant deal, Troy Smith had to produce six arrests of other people in order to avoid drug charges himself. When he tried to sell meth to another informant as part of his quota, he got busted. Because of a procedural mistake by his lawyer, Smith could not raise the “public authority” defense, i.e. the claim that the government authorized him to commit the crime. Smith is currently serving a 12-year sentence, arguably for doing exactly what the government told him to do. I tell this story not only because it seems ironic and unfair, but because the pervasive use of informants invites precisely this kind of debacle.