Convictions by False Testimony
Despite the oath to tell the truth witnesses frequently lie on the stand. But, there’s a class of liar that stands below all the rest – the jailhouse snitch. This is the person who claims to have heard a fellow inmate, on remand and waiting trial, confess to a crime.
It’s possible for the informer to bargain for an earlier release date if they give testimony against a fellow inmate. For many, it doesn’t matter whether what they say is true or not, the goal is to shorten their sentence.
Juries may never know that inducements have been offered in exchange for evidence. And, adds the Innocence Project, “Incentivized witnesses continue to testify in courtrooms around the country today.”
From Perjury to Prison
The case of Larry Peterson is typical of those that put people behind bars for crimes they did not commit.
In 1989, the body of a woman was found beside a dirt road in Burlington County, central New Jersey. She had been strangled and sexually assaulted. A neighbour told police that Larry Peterson had some recent scratches on his arms and that made him a suspect.
Three of Peterson’s co-workers were brought in for questioning. The Innocence Project picks up the story: “The three men, after a number of interrogations, told police that Peterson had confessed to them while they were in the car together on the way to work … A jailhouse snitch with charges pending in three counties also testified at trial that he had heard Peterson admit that he had killed the victim.”
Those “confessions” and some faulty forensic evidence were enough to convict Larry Peterson and give him a sentence of life in prison plus 20 years. After more than 16 years behind bars Peterson was exonerated by DNA evidence. The witnesses to his “confessions” had lied.
Trading Lies for Freedom
Can a jailhouse “confession” ever be believed?
USA Today reports (December 2012) that “At least 48,895 federal convicts - one of every eight - had their prison sentences reduced in exchange for helping government investigators.”
Obviously, there is a huge incentive for prisoners to fabricate stories about fellow inmates in an effort to shorten their sentences.
Prisons, it’s been said, are full of innocent people.
No question, some inmates did not commit the crimes for which they have been convicted. But, even those whose guilt is absolutely beyond doubt often steadfastly maintain the fiction that they are innocent and victims of a miscarriage of justice.
Yet, seemingly, thousands of these apparently innocent people are happy to reveal their guilt to fellow inmates. Supposedly, they engage in private tell-all sessions while knowing the people who share their place of residence are trying to find a shortcut out of there, and that divulging guilty secrets is a good way to achieve this.
A prisoner in Atlanta’s downtown jail, with a flare for entrepreneurship, set up a system of selling information to fellow prisoners so they had something to offer authorities in exchange for time off their sentences.
Armed robber Marcus Watkins saw himself as a fine, upstanding citizen; an agent of good, if you will. USA Today quotes him as saying “ ‘I didn’t feel as though any laws were being broken,’ Watkins wrote in a 2008 letter to prosecutors. ‘I really thought I was helping out law enforcement.’ ” Apparently, three other inmates have operated similar schemes in recent years in Atlanta.
Jailhouse Snitches in Canada
Former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Peter Cory has written that “Jailhouse informants comprise the most deceitful and deceptive group of witnesses known to frequent the courts … They rush to testify like vultures to rotting flesh or sharks to blood. They are smooth and convincing liars … Usually their presence as witnesses signals the end of any hope of providing a fair trial.”
Justice Cory wrote that in a report on the wrongful conviction of Thomas Sophonow.
In December 1981, 16-year-old Barbara Stoppel was murdered in the Winnipeg doughnut shop where she worked. By March 1982 suspicion had fallen on Thomas Sophonow and he was charged with the murder.
Police had little evidence until they found a jailhouse informant in Douglas Martin. He claimed he had heard Sophonow confess to killing Barbara Stoppel while he was in custody awaiting trial. Martin’s evidence was crucial to convicting Thomas Sophonow, but it was all lies. Despite having previously been convicted of perjury, the Crown put Douglas Martin on the stand as a reliable witness.
Sophonow spent four years in prison before Martin’s deceit was exposed. He was released and exonerated and now works on behalf of the wrongfully convicted.
Unfortunately, Thomas Sophonow is not the only victim of lying jailhouse snitches. However, several inquiries into wrongful convictions have recommended that jailhouse informants never be called as courtroom witnesses in Canada.
Yet, there is still a brisk trade in information for reduced sentences in the United States.
In May 2016, Henry Rodriguez was released from prison in Orange County, California after serving 18 years for a murder conviction. He was set free by a judge because at trial the District Attorney made improper use of a jailhouse informant’s testimony. Matt Ferner writes (Huffington Post) that “Multiple murder cases have already been derailed by revelations out of Orange County’s formerly secret jailhouse informant network.”
The issue is the subject of the documentary below.
“Know the Cases.” The Innocence Project, undated.
“Jailhouse Informants, Their Unreliability and the Importance of Complete Crown Disclosure Pertaining to Them.” Manitoba Justice, September 2001.
“How Snitches Pay for Freedom.” Denny Gainer, Jerry Mosemak, and Brad Heath, USA Today, December 11, 2012.
“Jailhouse Snitch Scandal In Orange County Unravels Another Murder Case.” Matt Ferner, Huffington Post, February 25, 2016.