Controversies on the use of jailhouse snitches have flared for ages within the criminal justice system, and the advent of DNA testing only adds to the concerns about convictions chalked up to such informants.
Last February, Bruce Godschalk was freed after spending 15 years in a Pennsylvania prison for rape. A jailhouse informant said Godschalk had confessed; DNA tests proved his innocence. Through the years, there have been many cases of snitches later recanting their testimony in jurisdictions across the United States. Others have shown improper alliances with police who rely on informants to gain confessions that would be impossible if officers themselves were questioning defendants.
After 13 death row inmates were exonerated in Illinois, state officials called for a moratorium on executions and created a bipartisan group to make proposals for sweeping reforms. A cornerstone of those recommendations was a ban on death sentences based on testimony of jailhouse snitches because of their continual lack of credibility.
As in Illinois, a commission was created in Ontario, Canada, to propose reforms after a jailhouse snitch was used to wrongly convict Guy Paul Morin of killing a child in 1992. Since 1998, a special panel, dubbed both the Rat Pack and the Fink Committee, rules on the validity of using inmate informants in cases.
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In January, former Chicago police officer Steven Manning sued investigators who had allegedly fabricated a jailhouse confession for a snitch to use against him in his murder trial, which was later overturned.
Pressure on convicts to come up with confessions or key information on others intensified in the last decade, when tough-on-crime officials ended almost all other avenues for early release in the federal prison system. Basically it's snitch or serve a full sentence.
The cynicism over the federal rule to reward inmate informants crystallized in the 1996 obstruction of justice case against noted Atlanta defense attorney Robert Fierer. He and an associate were caught in a scheme to broker informants for convicts wanting out from under prison sentences.
Those who could afford to secretly pay as much as $25,000 were linked up with outside informants so the convicts could claim to the government that they had assisted in cases actually made by the informants, who got a cut of the fees for their participation.
"There are people in prison looking for any edge to get out and get their sentence reduced," explains Bill Dressel, president of the National Judicial College, the Reno-based U.S. training center for judges. "Why in the heck would somebody talk to a cellmate? You've got to shake your head about that."
Concerns about evidence credibility caused several states -- Texas is not among them -- to set up special hearings to determine the validity of jailhouse snitch testimony, or to at least issue special jury instructions for evaluating it. Appellate rulings have especially narrowed the police use of inmates to gain confessions from fellow convicts, says Dressel, a Colorado judge for 22 years.
"The problem is they perjure themselves. They get believed and people get hurt as a result -- innocent people," says Neil McCabe, a professor at South Texas College of Law. He says that defense attorneys have to be especially diligent to point out that "these people have a big incentive to manufacture evidence or shade the truth."
"The old saying about honor among thieves isn't true," McCabe says. "This is a very strong incentive for folks sitting in jail and doing nothing but time -- they aren't in jail because they are humanitarians wanting to do good for society."
However, McCabe says, the current conservative dominance within the judiciary and politics in Texas means it is unlikely there will be reforms in the use of snitches.
"This kind of testimony is inherently suspect," says David Crump, a University of Houston law professor and former prosecutor. "People in prison are not real credible to begin with; and secondly, you are in effect promising them something in return."
Juries may tend to discount the testimony of a criminal, although the pressure can mount to use jailhouse informants in extremely heinous crimes that might not otherwise be brought to trial, Crump explains.
His courtroom experience convinced Crump that juries require a higher level of proof for lesser crimes. For especially abominable "blood and guts" offenses, the standard for evidence actually lessens, Crump says.
He says a good safeguard is the test of whether a jailhouse snitch's word can be corroborated by independent information -- especially if it leads to the recovery of a murder weapon or other undisclosed evidence. Otherwise, anybody with access to news accounts or public documents on a crime could concoct a story that another inmate has confessed.
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