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.