The danger of informants

Kati Gardella, Crier Staff

When someone accused of a crime is on trial is the most pertinent time to gather information indicative of the presence of guilt. This process of fact-finding is taken to the extreme when someone steps forward with information that they claim came out of the defendant’s mouth, information that significantly increases the likelihood that the defendant is guilty.

When one presents themself as an informant, or is solicited by attorneys to closely seek out anything that the defendant says that is salient to the case is a practice known as “snitching.”

The goal of the prosecution is for the informant to bring back information that has semblance to a confession, and they may incentivize the informant with rewards such as a lighter sentence if what they say helps produce a guilty verdict.

The basis of the practice of seeking informants is flawed in itself, as the assumption is that the suspect will talk about the crime he or she has been accused of willy-nilly, even if it is to their new cellmate, who they have barely just met.

It is quite unhealthy in the legal system if the prosecution team is more intent on condemning rather than truthful information. Attorneys who have utilized incentivized informants in the past have sometimes held the belief that it is unimportant if they themselves believe in the credibility of the informant, as long as the jury buys it.

Informants will either be solicited by authorities or appear with information out of their own accord and hope to be rewarded. Both voluntary and solicited informants are harmful to the overall morale of the correctional institution.

It is more likely that inmates will be more cynical and untrusting of one another if they know that it is possible that someone has been solicited just to report back on what they have said in the private confines of their cell.

In 2005, the Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions found that false informant testimony was the leading cause in wrongful convictions in capital cases.Also in 2005, the Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago issued a report titled “The Snitch System: How Incentivized Witnesses Put 38 Innocent Americans on Death Row.” This report calls snitching a “cycle of betrayal,” as informants are often fellow inmates who can have peers reporting them in the future.

The first documented case with a wrongful conviction involving an informant was in 1819, in Manchester, Vermont. Jesse and Stephen Boorne were brothers accused of killing their brother in law Russel Colvin.

While imprisoned, Jesse’s cellmate was Silas Merrill, who testified that Jesse confessed to the crime. Merrill was rewarded with freedom for his confession, and the brothers were sentenced to be executed by gallows.

Luckily, Colvin turned out to be alive, and this information reached the authorities in time for the brothers to be justly freed. Although most cases of wrongful convictions are not as extreme as this one- with the victim not even being dead, this raises important doubt about the credibility of informants.

Like Merrill, many informants are given freedom, or at least a reduced sentence. The alleged confession was the only proof that the brother in law had been murdered (it would have been hard to gather other evidence, considering that he was still very much alive) and was the major reason for the brothers receiving the death penalty.

It is quite scary that what is essentially a rumor and word-of-mouth is taken seriously in court and not immediately dismissed as hearsay.

The Innocence Project website is a good resource for more statistics about informants. Out of cases that were overturned because of DNA testing, 15% of the cases had used information from informants as critical evidence in the case.

There is also the issue of police and other law enforcement officials seeking out informants and providing them with many details of the case that have been undisclosed to the public. By doing so, they are essentially feeding the informant enough information for them to come forward and make a statement of the suspect’s guilt- even if this is completely fabricated.

Even when an informant has tried to withdraw a previously made statement in court, there have been instances when they were faced with pressure from the prosecution to uphold what they previously said.

Attorneys will even belittle informants once they fail to serve their purpose in court. They instrumentally attack their credibility to incriminate the defendant.

Texas attempted to pass a bill in 2015 that would disallow the use of informants who were receiving benefits from their testimony in cases where there was a potential death penalty. Their testimony would only be admissible if they were able to present an electronic recording of the defendant’s statement. This is fair enough, as there would be physical proof of the words.

Incentivized informants are producers of corruption that are easily overlooked. It is very easy for the jury to listen to the statement, and be so enraptured that they fail to notice any discrepancies. This can also cause too much weight in the decision-making process of the jury.

The most helpful steps for the future are to significantly reduce the use of incentivized informants in court. DNA testing is the most reliable measure for determining guilt, and has successfully been used to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals.