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The False Testimony of Prison Informants

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A prison informant is the person who claims to have heard a fellow inmate, on remand and awaiting trial, confess to a crime.

Such people can and do strike a bargain with prosecutors to give evidence against an accused person in return for getting time cut from their sentences. For these individuals, 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.”

A Family Destroyed by Jailhouse Snitches

A Black family in Church Point, Louisiana became victims of jailhouse informants and police harassment. Ann Colomb had three sons who were light skinned. When they started dating white girls the trouble started, particularly because one of the girls was the daughter of a sheriff's deputy.

The boys suffered the frequent accusation of driving while Black, but then, in the mid-2000s the intimidation escalated. Drug enforcement raids uncovered a small amount of crack that belonged to none of the Colombs. A relative said the crack was his and Ann Colomb and her boys knew nothing about it.

Nevertheless, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Grayson pressed drug conspiracy charges against the family. Journalist Radley Balko wrote that Grayson “was eventually able to line up more than 30 jailhouse snitches who were prepared to testify against the family—all in exchange for time off of their own sentences.”

Think about that, thirty snitches. It was as if Grayson went into a nearby prison common room and asked who wants six months off their sentence in return for giving evidence against the Colombs?

Actually, something similar to that did happen. Someone from the prosecutor's office left a file on the case in a prison and the inmates used its information to set up a profitable scheme. For a fee, any inmate could buy information about the Colombs and then contact the prosecutor's office to strike a bargain for testimony.

By adding up the perjured testimony of 30 inmates who claimed they sold drugs to the Colombs, the family that was struggling financially would have to have been buying $500,000 worth of cocaine each month.

Meanwhile, the tainted evidence was enough to convince the jury to convict the family. As a result, Ann and her sons sat in jail to await sentencing with the prospect of spending decades behind bars.

Then, the jailhouse snitch scheme was revealed by accident and U.S. District Judge Tucker Melancon through the charges out. “The problem wasn’t just this case. We potentially have a huge problem with this network in the federal prison system.”

Nobody seems to have suffered any consequences for this miscarriage of justice except the Colomb family, which exhausted its savings and then some on legal bills.

From Perjury to Prison

The case of Larry Peterson is typical of those that put people behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

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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

  • USA Today reports that “At least 48,895 federal convicts―one of every eight―had their prison sentences reduced in exchange for helping government investigators.”
  • According to the Innocence Project “Jailhouse informant testimony is one of the leading contributing factors of wrongful convictions nationally, playing a role in nearly one in five of the 367 DNA-based exoneration cases.”
  • “More than 140 people have been exonerated in murder cases involving jailhouse informant testimony since the U.S. Supreme Court signed off on its constitutionality in 1966” (ProPublica, 2019).

Obviously, there is a huge incentive for prisoners to fabricate stories about fellow inmates in an effort to shorten their sentences.

Marcus Watkins was a prisoner in Atlanta’s downtown jail, with a flare for entrepreneurship. He set up a system of selling information to fellow prisoners so they had something to offer authorities in exchange for time off their sentences.

Watkins, a convicted armed robber, 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 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.

Giving False Testimony

Bonus Factoids

  • Occasionally, police officers, pretending to be inmates, are placed in the cells of people on remand in an effort to encourage a confession.
  • 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.

An investigation into the allegations of a jailhouse snitch network began in 2015.

Prisonlegalnews.org tells us “That investigation quietly ended without any charges filed against law enforcement personnel who perjured themselves and compromised many criminal trials, resulting in numerous retrials and dismissals, as detailed by the Los Angeles Times in a January 20, 2020 story.

'Though the scandal sparked a U.S. Department of Justice investigation and led to retrials for dozens of defendants, including convicted murderers, the unexplained conclusion of the state inquiry has stirred frustration that many key players will escape accountability,' the Times said.”

Sources

  • “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.
  • “30 Years of Jailhouse Snitch Scandals.” Katie Zavadski and Moiz Syed, ProPublica, December 4, 2019.
  • “Unregulated Jailhouse Informant Testimony Deeply Harms Our Justice System.” innocenceproject.org, March 6, 2019.
  • “An Update in The Story of Ann Colomb.” Radley Balko, HuffPost, September 4, 2013.
  • How Kamala Harris’ Orange County, California “Snitch” Scandal Investigation Imploded.” Derek Gilna, prisonlegalnews.org, October 1, 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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