This post is from Alexandra Natapoff’s new blog, snitching.org, based on her forthcoming book, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice
I recommend this recent feature article in Reason Magazine by Radley Balko, entitled Guilty Before Proven Innocent. It tells the mind-blowing story of an innocent family in Louisiana, Ann Colomb and her three sons, who were wrongfully convicted of drug trafficking based on the testimony of numerous prison snitches. The informants were part of an information-selling network inside the federal prison, in which inmates purchased files and photographs to help them fabricate testimony which they then marketed to prosecutors in order to get sentence reductions. A bunch of inmates got hold of the Colomb file, and told prosecutors that they would testify against the family. If it werent for a few chance encounters that revealed the scam, the Colomb family would still be in federal prison.
I like this story because it highlights some classic problems with criminal informants. It also illustrates the scale of the phenomenon–and its potential for massive miscarriages of justice– in ways that may be surprising to people unfamiliar with the daily workings of the criminal process.
As the story illustrates, criminal informants are a primary (and infamous) source of wrongful convictions. Check out the link to the Northwestern University Law School report entitled The Snitch System on the left. Second, there are a lot of them: the government planned to use dozens of prison snitches against the Colomb family, and presiding Judge Tucker Melancon indicated that the phenomenon was pervasive. Third, prosecutors rely heavily on them even when the government should be suspicious. The prosecutor in the Colomb case did not appear to know that his prison snitch witnesses were selling information to each other and then lying about it; rather, he took them at their word even though he knew they had massive incentives to lie. Perhaps most importantly, the story shows how snitching has become commonly understood as a way for suspects and inmates to game the system. The Louisiana snitch ring sold information for thousands of dollars inside and outside the prison. This business plan was a response to a central fact about the U.S. criminal process–that information and leniency are traded freely between offenders and the government without rigorous fact-checking. This case just took it to a new level.