Criminal Justice

When Can You Trust a Jailhouse Informant?

And when can a court trust one?

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A Texas bill would eliminate certain sorts of jailhouse-snitch testimony in death penalty cases. Radley Balko reacts:

I hid the alt-text behind another image.
Universal Pictures

The very idea that people regularly confess to crimes that could put them in prison for decades or possibly even get them executed to someone they just met in a jail cell and have known for all of a few hours is and has always been preposterous. Not to mention the fact that these are people whose word prosecutors wouldn't trust under just about any other circumstance. When informants have later recanted testimony or claimed that police or prosecutors browbeat them into lying, a DA's office will quickly point to the informants' criminal records and lack of trustworthiness. But when they're helping to win a conviction, their word is gold.

Read the rest here.

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  1. Way to be soft on crime, Lone Star State.

    1. Also, way to go soft on the nut punching,

      BAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLKO!

  2. +1 Alt Text – IF I COULD HAVE FOUND IT!

  3. That’s the best Alt-Text I’ve ever chased, Jesse.

    Well done, Sir.

    1. Sometimes I marvel at how easily pleased we commentariati can be by the smallest things 🙂

      And pissed, by the same…

      1. Imagine what an edit feature would do. We’d all be downright giddy for a week.

        1. Oh, but we could never have anything so nice, Hyperion….that’s like a Unicorn…

  4. No we can’t. The use of jailhouse informants has probably put more innocent people in prison than any other police tactic. They take some person who has every reason to lie, is likely a criminal anyway, and then use their testimony to convict someone.

    Think about it, I know criminals are stupid, but just how many are so dumb they brag to other criminals in jail about what they did? A few sure. But not very many. I would say most of not a large majority of testimony of jailhouse informants is complete bullshit.

    1. I’d say nearly all of it is.

      I mean, just think of it this way. Radley brings up Ryan Frederick in his article. We’re supposed to believe that Mr. Frederick, who was obviously, from the initial interview with police, incredibly distraught, was bragging to his cellmate (after less than an hour!) about killing a cop? Nah. It defies belief. Just like it defies belief that any accused criminal would brag in a similar way.

      And this is better than it used to be. It’s a tactic that was used all the time, but has since been ruled unconstitutional, but old cop shows (1950s Dragnet and such) are full of episodes where the cop goes into a cell undercover and elicits a confession. Wonder how many of THOSE “confessions” were bull.

    2. I spent 2 months in jail for possession of marijuana about 20 years ago. EVERY inmate I met was innocent and never committed a crime. So, from my experience, I want to know where these snitches are getting their info. Jailhouse snitches are the biggest lark in our criminal justice system.

  5. Why would a jailhouse snitch lie? He’s already in jail, he couldn’t possibly have anything to gain by lying. And it’s unethical – if not illegal – to offer inducements for testimony. And even if he were promised something in return for his testimony, why, that little nugget of information has to be revealed to the defense and they would use that information to impeach his testimony anyway. The idea of jailhouse snitches lying is as preposterous as a cop or a prosecutor lying (or a prosector-turned-judge accepting such lying in his courtroom), they all just want to see justice done and would never lie just to get a conviction if there’s even a shadow of a doubt that it might be a wrongful conviction.

    1. Solid A, you got me.

    2. +1 listen and believe

  6. Lissen here coppers. I ain’t got nothin’ to say to youse unless you pay up.

    1. Now you listen here, ProL – this is how it’s gonna be, see?

      I’m in charge now. And there’s nothin’ you or the coppers are gonna do about it!

  7. Sometimes jailhouse informants provide “evidence” that contributes to a death penalty sentence, as in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham and the “informant” Johnny Webb.

    This case alone should be enough for any liberty-minded individual to oppose the death penalty.

    1. The problem here is not the existence of the death penalty. The problem here is the immunity from consequences enjoyed by Prosecutors. If a Prosecutor appears to have knowingly cheated in a case, he should be charged with a crime. If it was a capitol case, he should be charged with Conspiracy to Commit Murder. Let every Prosecutor know that, if evidence emerges that would exonerate a death row prisoner, he might well end up swapping moving quarters with the man, and a great deal of this bullshit will evaporate.

      Now, that isn’t to say that there are not good, solid, focused reasons to eliminate the death penalty. But the problem here isn’t the death penalty, and is prosecutorial immunity.

      1. Have you read the incredibly sad and terrible story about the death penalty and Cameron Todd Willingham?

        Trial by Fire.

        There are a variety of reasons this particular story is a devastating argument against the death penalty, the jailhouse snitch part is just one of them.

  8. “When Can You Trust a Jailhouse Informant?”

    Never. Next question.

    When can you trust a State Prosecutor?

    See answer to question #1.

    1. “Don’t trust. Verify.”

    2. No, when a prosecutor tells you he’s gonna do everything he can to fuck you over, then you can believe him.

  9. To be fair- a lot of people who kill people are stupid and would probably brag about it to strangers in jail.

    I mean, I’ve seen it on TV so I assume that’s how it happens. Also, cops wouldn’t arrest and prosecutors wouldn’t charge people without evidence they were guilty… right?

    1. The very idea that people regularly confess to crimes that could put them in prison for decades or possibly even get them executed to someone they just met in a jail cell and have known for all of a few hours is and has always been preposterous

      Whoever wrote this has never been in jail. People brag their asses off about their criminality, while at the same time proclaiming their innocence. The idea that criminals are thoughtful, or intelligent, as a group, is the preposterous one.

      That being said, it’s likelihood is irrelevant to the negative incentives produced. Criminals will make up things to have their sentences reduced? You don’t say.

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