Category Archives: Snitching

New Research Elevates Concerns over Snitch Testimony

Testimony from jailhouse informants has been a known factor in wrongful convictions, and new data indicates the use of this risky evidence has been more frequent in the worst crimes, according to the May 2015  report of The National Registry of Exonerations. While snitch testimony has been a factor in 8% of exonerations across all crimes, it has been a contributor to wrongful conviction in 15% of murder exonerations and in 23% of death penalty exonerations.

Snitch testimony is compelling to a jury but often unreliable because it can be compromised by incentives for the informant to lie. A factor in 119 of 1,567 known exonerations (tallied from 1989 up to March 17, 2015), the new data reveals the risk not only of convicting the innocent but also of enabling the guilty to escape justice and continue perpetrating the most heinous of crimes. An accompanying consideration: Jailed snitches have been compensated for their testimony with reduced sentences, another risky practice.

Access The National Registry of Exonerations May newsletter (here).

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Update on the National Registry of Exonerations

In case you haven’t been able to check in on the National Registry of Exonerations lately, here’s an excerpt from the most recent data.  Note the total is now up to 1,512, and the trend line is definitely UP.

exon dna non

exon cont fact

exon fact crime

I won’t belabor you by pointing out some of the more obvious observations.  Just a few minutes of study will (should) lead you to some very clear conclusions.

It has been reported that the folks at the Registry are hard at work trying to incorporate the exonerations being generated by the newly formed “conviction integrity units” (CIU’s).  For these cases the prosecutors running the CIU’s may not be very motivated to have their exonerations logged into the Registry.

I can’t gush enough about how critical and important this data is.  It is this kind of HARD DATA that will provide the foundation for much needed and long overdue justice system reform.

Magazine tells how prosecutors became ‘kings of the courtoom’

“Most prosecutors are hard-working, honest and modestly paid,” The Economist says. “But they have accumulated so much power that abuse is inevitable.” The magazine explains how prosecutors became “the kings of the courtroom,” and how this contributes to wrongful convictions, here.

New Developments in Willingham Case, Ten Years After Execution

The Innocence Project has asked the State Bar of Texas to investigate former Navarro County prosecutor John Jackson relating to the arson case of Todd Willingham. Convicted of setting a fire on Dec. 23, 1991, that resulted in the death of his three young children — Amber, 2, and twins Karmon and Kameron, 1 — Willingham was executed on February 17, 2004.

Expert forensic testimony provided at the Willingham trial that equated burn patterns to the use of accelerants has been debunked by contemporary forensic science. Now, an article by Maurice Possley for The Marshall Project published in The Washington Post, details new evidence that undermines the second significant evidence that supported the conviction of Willingham, testimony from a jailhouse informant. Continue reading

17, on Death Row …. and Innocent

Shareef Cousin was once the youngest person in the US on death row.

His case is yet another example of how mistaken (or false) eyewitness testimony can override an airtight alibi.  And this one was also compounded by a Brady violation regarding the eyesight of the witness, a lying detective, and coerced snitch testimony.

Cousin has recently authored a CNN article decrying the death penalty.

This quote from the article:  “It is hard to argue that the death penalty is applied fairly. Take it from me, someone who lived alongside guys on death row: The system does not identify and sentence “the worst of the worst” to death — just the most powerless.”

You can read the CNN article here.

David Ranta Family Sues NYPD for $15M Over Wrongful Conviction

David Ranta spent 23 years in prison for a murder he did not commit – as a consequence of false eyewitness identification, a bogus lineup, a jailhouse snitch, and police tunnel vision.

The David Ranta case has been previously reported on this blog here, here, here, and here.

The David Ranta family is now suing the NYPD for $15 million for their suffering.  See the Huff Post story here.

Defendant in Coldest Case Ever “Solved” Appeals His Conviction

In September, 2012, Jack McCullough was convicted of a murder committed in 1957.  The conviction was based largely upon an eyewitness identification made 53 years after the crime by a woman who was 8 years old at the time of the crime.  The unreliability of eye witness identifications has been well documented; but 53 years after the crime, and by an 8 year old?!

In addition, if you read about the exculpatory evidence that the judge ruled McCullough was not allowed to present at trial, including an alibi and the fact that he had been cleared by investigators, you have to believe he has a case.

See the CNN story and video here.

Prosecutor Misconduct in the Todd Willingham Case

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 by the state of Texas for setting a fire that killed his three young children.

We’ve reported numerous times on this blog about the Cameron Todd Willingham case, and here is just one of those articles – Will Texas Admit It Executed an Innocent Man?

 It’s clear to even the casual observer of this case that Todd Wilingham was wrongfully convicted and wrongfully executed.  The State used now-debunked junk science in determining the fire that killed the Willingham children was arson.  The case is carefully documented in the award winning film Incendiary: The Willingham Case.

And now, another snake has just slithered out of the pit that the Texas justice system has made of this case.  It’s been revealed that the Willingham prosecutor, John Jackson, made a secret deal with jailhouse snitch, Johnny Webb, in return for his testimony that Willingham had confessed the crime to him in prison.  And further, that Jackson then concealed this deal from the Texas Board of Paroles and Pardons which was considering a stay of execution for Willingham.

Reported here by the Innocence Project – New Evidence Suggests Cameron Todd Willingham Prosecutor Deceived Board of Pardons and Paroles About Informant Testimony in Opposition to Stay of Execution.

Read the stories from the New York Times here, and the Manchester Guardian here.

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

  • New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman plans to unveil legislation Wednesday that would make it easier for people wrongfully convicted of crimes to recover damages from the state.  Schneiderman’s Unjust Imprisonment Act would strip away restrictions in state law that block claims from people who were coerced into false confessions or who pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit.  Full article here.
  • Pennsylvania Innocence Project hiring an investigator
  • Another chance for the U.S. Supreme Court to say no to prosecutorial misconduct
  • Missouri considers eyewitness id and videotaped interrogations reform
  • Opening of sealed records in Orange County, CA shows improper use of informants

Murder Charges Dismissed after Man Spent 20 Years in Prison

Summit County (OH) Judge Mary Margaret Rowland has dismissed aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, and aggravated robbery changes against Dewey Jones, 51, of Akron, Ohio, after he spent 20 years in prison following his conviction of the 1993 murder of Neil Rankin, 71. Jones had always claimed innocence.

According to a report from ABC Newsnet 5 (here) Cleveland, Judge Rowland granted Dewey a new trial after DNA testing results in 2012 on a knife and rope Continue reading

Monday’s Quick Clicks…


Monday’s Quick Clicks…


40+ Years After Epic Fire, Convicted Man to Go Free

LTaylorLouis Taylor has spent 43 years in prison for a crime he did not commit – setting a hotel on fire, resulting in the deaths of 29 people.

He was convicted based upon arson junk science and the false testimony of jailhouse snitches.

Two review committees determined that there is no longer enough evidence available to tell whether or not arson was in play.  They said that the experts in the original trial “used methods no longer valid in the science of today.”

The Arizona Justice Project played a key role in bringing the case to resolution.  Unfortunately, Louis Taylor will have to plead “no contest,” receive credit for time served, and be released on that basis.

You can read the CNN story here.  Watch 60 Minutes segment here.

BBC article: Problem with using “snitches”

The BBC has put out an interesting article (by Rob Walker) on the problems of using accused/convicted persons as police informants. It focuses on US practice, specifically the plea bargain process and the cutting of prosecutorial deals. However, the article’s observations are also relevant for countries where accused persons may be “incentivised” to provide the police or prosecution with apparently useful information in exchange for a lower sentence.  For example,  2012 amendments to Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act, which used to impose a mandatory death sentence for drug trafficking, now gives judges the discretion to impose life imprisonment instead of the death penalty if certain conditions are fulfilled. One of these conditions is that the Public Prosecutor “certifies to any court” that “in his determination” the accused person has “substantively assisted the Central Narcotics Bureau in disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore”.  In such situations, the accused person has an incentive to provide the police or prosecution with information even if he/she does not have any. To avoid wrongful convictions based on the manufacture of false information by accused persons, there needs to be clear regulations and an oversight system put in place. These should be accessible to those who may be wrongly accused, so as to enable their defence or requests for review, as well as the general public to ensure continued confidence in the system.

New Innocence Reforms in DC…

From the Washington Post:

Courts and police in the nation’s capital will change how they conduct lineups of suspects, when they notify defendants about informants and how long they retain criminal trial records, all in response to errors that have put innocent people in prison.

A task force created by D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield recommended that police use computers and staff not associated with a particular case to administer photo lineups to prevent influencing potential witnesses.

The court acknowledged that DNA often has cleared defendants long after their convictions, so officials will by March begin keeping trial records permanently rather than destroying them after 10 years.

Local courts also will begin giving criminal defendants earlier notice of any information that might impeach police informants — such as their criminal record and whether they have been paid, won a plea deal or other inducement, or cooperated with police or prosecutors in the past. Such information will be turned over at least two weeks before trial if it does not endanger witnesses, officials said. Previously, defendants got that information a few hours or days before trial.

“The Superior Court strives to attain exemplary standards of practice in the criminal justice system,” Satterfield wrote in a letter Tuesday thanking the panel.

The changes place District authorities on a path undertaken by many state legislatures, police agencies and court systems in response to wrongful Continue reading

The Dark Side of Crime Stoppers – False Information and Police Tunnel Vision

CS LogoYou’re probably familiar with Crime Stoppers.  Crime Stoppers first began in Albuquerque, NM during July 1975.  Two weeks after a fatal shooting, the police had no information, when out of desperation, Detective Greg MacAleese approached the local television station requesting a reconstruction of the crime. The re-enactment offered $1,000 for information leading to the arrest of the killers.  Within 72 hours, a person called in identifying a car leaving the scene at high speed, and he had noted its registration. The person calling said that he did not want to get involved, so he had not called earlier. Detective MacAleese then realized that fear and apathy were the primary reasons why the public tended not to get involved. So he helped establish a system where the public could anonymously provide details of crime events that offered cash rewards for information leading to an arrest and/or conviction.  Since its first chapter was officially formed in Albuquerque in 1976, Crime Stoppers has spread across the United States, and has been responsible for more than half a million arrests and more than $4 billion in recovered property.

This all sounds very good, and I support the organization, but let’s dig deeper into the motivational aspects of why someone would phone in an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers.  Someone who really wanted to do their “civic duty” would go directly to the police, and if they’re afraid of “involvement” or retribution, they can still remain anonymous.  Given that anyone can provide an anonymous tip directly to the police, the real attraction of Crime Stoppers is the cash.  Here are some examples from Crime Stoppers organizations across the country.  The payouts are all conditioned upon either an arrest or an indictment or both.

This from the Topeka, KS Crime Stoppers website:
Topeka Crimestoppers

And  here is a random sampling of the rewards offered by Crime Stoppers organizations across the country:

Crime Stoppers of Michigan$1,000

Texas Crime Stoppers – $50,000

Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay$1,000

NYPD Crime Stoppers – $10,000, $2,000, $1,000, or $500 – depending on the crime

The problem here is that people can be tempted to provide information, even if it’s false, just to get the payout.  It happens – just like jailhouse snitches will provide false information to get a deal from the prosecutor.

Continue reading

Compromised Justice? Selling Case Details to Would-be Snitches

A must-read USA Today report published on December 14 (here) places a spotlight on a process rarely revealed to those outside the justice system: The role of the snitch in making federal cases…and in reducing sentences. While DNA proven wrongful convictions have shown that snitches can be a questionable source for information, the use of snitches continues to be widespread. So much so that credible case information is a currency for getting out of jail sooner.

Imprisoned bank robber Marcus Watkins is not the first to recognize that there could be a profitable business in selling case details to defendants and convicts desperate to reduce their sentences. Continue reading

Breaking News: Judge Vacates Convictions in Washington

Congratulations to Robert Larson, Tyler Gassman, Paul Statler, and the Innocence Project Northwest!!

From The Spokesman Review:

Family members gasped with joy and wept Friday as a judge threw out the disputed robbery convictions of three Spokane men who have argued for years that they were framed by a snitch who was trying to spare himself and his brother from longer prison terms.

Superior Court Judge Michael Price, after reviewing new evidence in the case, offered scathing criticism of what he called the failures of the three attorneys who previously defended Paul E. Statler, Tyler W. Gassman and Robert E. Larson. Price vacated the 2009 convictions for robbery, assault and drive-by shooting that netted Statler about 42 years, Gassman 26 and Larson 20 years in prison.

“Mr. Larson, Mr. Gassman and Mr. Statler were entitled to a fair trial and effective counsel,” Price said. “One cannot go on without the other. Here the counsel failed … to discover evidence critical to rebutting the state’s case.”

Price said arguments presented by attorneys on behalf of the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic had provided new phone and work records – which had not been sought by earlier defense attorneys – that raised serious doubt whether a jury would have convicted the three men. Continue reading

Federal Prosecutorial Misconduct – Can There Be Any Difference at the State and Local Level?

USA Today just published a story about Nino Lyons, who was exonerated of drug trafficking charges for which he was convicted in 2001.  It’s a very “telling” article.  Here is the lead-in to the story:

“For more than a week in 2001, the jurors listened to one witness after another, almost all of them prison inmates, describe how Lyons had sold them packages of cocaine. One said that Lyons, who ran clothing shops and nightclubs around Orlando, even tried to hire him to kill two drug suppliers.

But the federal prosecutors handling the case did not let the jury hear all the facts.

Instead, the prosecutors covered up evidence that could have discredited many of Lyons’ accusers. They never revealed that a convict who claimed to have purchased hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Lyons struggled even to identify his photograph. And they hid the fact that prosecutors had promised to let others out of prison early in exchange for their cooperation.”

See full story here.

Quoted in the article is Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman, an expert on misconduct by prosecutors. “It’s systemic now, and … the system is not able to control this type of behavior. There is no accountability.”  (emphasis is mine)

The article focuses on federal prosecutors, but why would this situation be any different at state and local levels?  My expectation is that it’s not.  I’ve heard prosecutors quoted as saying “We will win at all cost.”

There has to be some accountability for these people who are invested with so much power, but it seems there is not.