Caught Up in Snitches

No scientific evidence? No witnesses? Just use a snitch. Last week a jury in Washington D.C. convicted Ingmar Guandique of the murder of Chandra Levy, the Congressional intern (who had an affair with California congressmen Gary Condit) from California who disappeared in 2001 and whose body was discovered in 2002.

The only evidence linking Mr. Guandique to the murder was testimony from his former cellmate.  Prosecutors also produced evidence of previous attacks against women by Mr. Guandique in the same park in the early 2000′s.  From jurors’ quotes in the Post article, it was the snitch testimony that swayed the jury:

Juror Sharae Bacon said the cellmate’s testimony convinced her that Guandique killed Levy. “There were no holes in his testimony,” she said.
Bacon, the juror, said Morales was the key to the verdict for her and others on the panel.

“They were gang brothers. Guandique confided in him,” she said.

Bacon said the jurors focused on Morales’s discussion of the pouch. It never was recovered and other witnesses recounted how Levy wore the fanny pack around her waist when she exercised.  Pages 1 and 3.

I’ve taken an interest in snitch testimony, or jailhouse informant testimony as it is more properly known. It was likely my opinion on the matter that caused the State to use a challenge on me when I was voir dired in the Bellamy case. When asked how I would assess the testimony of witnesses who are testifying in exchange for favorable treatment on other cases they have, I said that although I would weigh the credibility of those witnesses the way I would any other, I would be more skeptical of a snitch than an ordinary person. I said that I just find it difficult to believe that these witnesses (criminals and prisoners themselves) who tend to HATE the police and prosecutors all of a sudden become altruistic to law enforcement.

Yet prosecutors use snitches and jurors believe them.  Not that snitches always lie because there are some that don’t and that juries should never believe them, but I don’t think that many jurors know enough about snitch testimony to prudently weigh its credibility.  I personally do not have much experience in this area either but I do know a little through reading and research as well as my own dealings with defendants, criminals and prisoners to not hold it out as a source of truth.  I’ve talked to clients who were frequent prisoners and they told me of known snitches all of a sudden being transferred into their cells or trying to start conversations with them.  One motive prisoners have in common is their desire to get out.  While prisoners may boast of their experience, many also keep quiet because they know the system and known that boasting about crimes yet to be tried is not going to get them out.

Juries often do not know “The Snitch System.” Some of that is defense lawyers not producing enough evidence to discredit that kind of testimony; some is also courts not permitting it.  The above-linked 2004-05 study by the Northwestern University School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions asserted that “snitch testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases.” Capital cases.  At the time of the study’s publication, 51 people were exonerated for crimes they did not commit yet were convicted by snitches, “witnesses with incentives to lie.”  The total number of exonerated persons at the time of publications was 111.  In 2009, the Innocence Projected helped exonerate Dewey Bozella who was convicted in New York on the testimony of two witnesses with criminal histories who repeatedly changed their stories.  Mr. Bozella spent 26 years in prison before a judge ruled that he was wrongfully convicted.  In 2007, Roy Lopez Garcia was convicted of murder in Santa Clara, CA  in part on testimony by snitch Timonthy Villalba–who provided the evidence most directly linking Mr. Garcia to the murder.  Mr. Villalba previously testified in the 2002 murder trial for Glen Nickerson.  Nickerson was convicted but the conviction was overturned by a U.S. District Court judge who held that Mr. Villalbal was “entirely without credibility.”  In the Garcia case, the jury was told Mr. Villalbal testified in the Nickerson case but was not allowed to hear that a judge found him to not be credible.

As much as prisoners have purported to brag (or confide) to fellow inmates about their crimes, snitches have come forward to boast about their craft.  The Justice Project website has the story of legendary snitch Leslie Vernon White, who, in interviews with 60 Minutes and Time, described his process of fabricating testimony and making it believable.

As long as there are prisons there will be inmates willing to perjure themselves out of them.  As long as prosecutors have evidence linking defendants to crimes, they will use it.  Prosecutors must be more scrupulous in deciding to use it and have an obligation to determine it is credible.  Defense attorneys must also examine the credibility of jailhouse informants as well as teach the jury about the snitch system.  Courts must also permit the defense to take jurors into the world of prison and snitching.  It is the unfamiliarity with this world that likely leads to jurors to not understand snitch testimony.  If prosecutors are going to use it, the defense must be allowed to question it.  Just as the parties can call experts on scientific evidence, they should be allowed to call experts on snitching.

Courts have not however been so receptive.  In the winter of 2010, George Leniart was convicted in New London of the murder of April Pennington, who disappeared in 1996 (Disclosure: I interned with the lawyers who defended Mr. Leniart–Norm Pattis and Kevin Smith–I did work on this case and met with Mr. Leniart in  the summer of 2009).  The State did not have a body or any scientific evidence.  The evidence linking Mr. Leniart to the kidnapping, rape and murder of Ms. Pennington came from prisoners.  Norm and Kevin called prisoner witnesses of their own to discredit the State’s snitches but were not allowed to call a snitching expert.  Expert testimony is allowed when it is helpful to the trier of fact and is beyond the knowledge of jurors.  While the determination of credibility is not beyond the ken of jurors, prison culture and the snitch system (perhaps fortunately) are.  Juries need to be informed about the jailhouse informant testimony that is relied upon frequently in high stakes cases.

Justice for all,

Chris

[For a fictionalized story about snitch testimony and the death penalty, check out this classic episode of The Practice, the best legal show ever made.]

Chris DeMatteo is an attorney and the sole member of DeMatteo Legal Solutions at 2911 Dixwell Ave., Ste. B10, Hamden, CT. Call (203) 691-6594 or visit the office website. Attorney DeMatteo represents clients in criminal, juvenile and civil matters in all of Connecticut's courts.

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