Death By Snitch

Jailhouse informants comprise the most deceitful and deceptive group of witnesses known to frequent the courts. The more notorious the case, the greater the number of prospective informants. They rush to testify like vultures to rotting flesh or sharks to blood. They are smooth and convincing liars.

(Province of Manitoba, Report of Jailhouse Informant Commission, 2003)

On January 25, 2006, the judge in Michael Morales’s trial wrote a letter to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, recommending that clemency be granted to Mr. Morales. Judge Charles McGrath told the Gov he wrongfully relied on the perjured testimony of Bruce Samuelson, a jailhouse snitch. Samuelson testified that Morales had made obscene, derogatory statements about the victim, and had callously boasted of how he stabbed and raped her. Ten years after the trial, a Deputy Attorney General interviewed Samuelson and asked him about how he and Morales spoke to each other given that they were both in a cell full of inmates. Samuelson said that at his initiative, all their discussions were in Spanish. But Morales is a 4th generation American, and did not know Spanish. Everything Samuelson told the jury that Morales told him was a lie.

Had the truth about Samuelson’s testimony been revealed during the course of the trial, Judge McGrath would have set aside Morales’ death sentence at his review of the jury’s verdict. And, according to Governor Schwarzenegger, at least one juror would not have voted for death had she known that Samuelson fabricated his entire testimony. Thus, there is no doubt that Samuelson’s lies made a difference.

Or did they? When these facts, which have been known since 1993, were put before the California Supreme Court, along with Judge McGrath’s views on their impact, they weren’t deemed worth discussing. The Ninth Circuit acknowledged that Samuelson was a liar, but wrote that whether or not Samuelson lied about talking to Morales “is not the question.” What, then, is the question? Whether or not the prosecution planted Samuelson near Morales was the only question the judges felt was worth answering. “That Samuelson bargained with what he had–information–for what he wanted–lenience–does not support an inference that he was planted to get such information.” The court thus transmogrified Samuelson’s lies into “information,” refused to consider where those lies might have come from, and waved away evidence that the lies affected the trial.

There is no need for any “planting” ceremony these days, because every veteran criminal knows, and has known for decades, that providing lies to a jury for the prosecution is a sure way to leniency and favors, and the surest way not to be rewarded is to discuss favors ahead of time. San Joaquin County prosecutors know this, too. In 1988, Leslie White, a veteran informant locked in the LA jail, showed the world via “60 Minutes” how he could fabricate a confession by someone he had never even met. A scandal flared that led to an exhaustive investigation by the Los Angeles Grand Jury. Hundreds of lawyers, court and law enforcement personnel, prisoners and inmates were interviewed. One hundred and fifty-three criminal cases were identified as being affected by the involvement of jailhouse informers during the 1979-1988 period. The jail had evolved into an evidence factory that ground out “confessions” in nearly every serious case. In this factory, the foremen were sheriff’s deputies who classified, reclassified, and transferred inmates in order to increase production. The line workers were a handful of police detectives, district attorney investigators, and their crew of several dozen snitches. The task of these men, whose numbers were augmented by occasional one-shot “temporaries,” was to testify in court ­ after coaching from the district attorney’s office ­ that the defendant had confessed to the charges, and made despicable remarks about the victims.

A basic premise of the system was that the prosecution would not make any explicit deals with the snitch before the elicitation of the confession. If the prosecution made an explicit deal, they would have an obligation to disclose the terms of the deal to the defense. Both the informant and the authorities relied on a tacit understanding that the informant had come forward out of civic duty. In case after case reviewed by the Grand Jury, the informant testified that he asked nothing for his testimony and that favorable treatment was not even discussed. Yet these same informants expected, and received, the anticipated payoff for their testimony.

The Grand Jury Report sparked a wave of publicity about the “Snitch System.” It was followed by commissions across the country and in Canada that reached the same conclusions: snitch testimony is pandemic, false and unreliable. Any doubt about these conclusions has been put to rest by the advent of DNA testing. DNA, often found in the most serious crimes where blood and semen are left behind, has identified a host of guilty perpetrators, and shown that well over a hundred people were convicted and sentenced to death even though they were completely innocent. Fifty-one of these men were put on Death Row in large part on the basis of jailhouse informant testimony from liars like Samuelson. The routine appearance of such witnesses has made perjury part of the structure of our most important criminal trials. To deny this infection of the process would be, in the words of Justice Felix Frankfurter, “to ignore as judges what we know as human beings.” (Watson v. Indiana (1949) 338 U.S. 49, 52.)

Courts well know about the existence of a Snitch System that produces unreliable evidence. Despite this knowledge, courts not only tolerate snitch testimony, but effectively excuse it. Prosecutors continue to use it; even though jurors may be skeptical, the stain of the accusations, like a charge of child abuse, can never truly be washed away. When Michael Morales’ prosecutors learned that Samuelson had lied, did they initiate any proceeding to discover where Samuelson had gotten the raw material of his lies, since he got nothing from Morales? No. They strenuously, and successfully, opposed any hearing that would have gotten closer to the truth. When the judge who tried the case told them what the impact of Samuelson’s false testimony was on his consideration of whether to affirm or set aside Morales’ death sentence, they viewed the judge as a stone in their shoe, a rock in their road to the death of Morales, and they ridiculed and attacked him for overlooking evidence of Morales’ horrific crime.

Was Morales’ crime so horrific that he deserved the death penalty regardless of his prior record or any subsequent remorse or character development? Maybe so ­ but we will never know. Morales was not sentenced to death by a judge and jury that weighed the terrible facts of his crime against the mitigating circumstances of the childhood and subsequent character development. He is now alive only because of a debate over the best method of killing him, and remains scheduled to die, tipped over the edge by venomous lies known to be false from the moment Samuelson’s testimony was developed with the San Joaquin County prosecutor’s office. His testimony has been known by all to be a tissue of falsehoods since 1993, and known to have been fatal since January 26, 2006, when the trial judge wrote to the governor supporting Morales’ bid for clemency.

Every important player in the criminal justice system has hidden behind technicalities to shelter them from considering in depth where these lies came from, and what they have meant for Michael Morales. California’s criminal justice system cannot pretend to approach justice until it consigns jailhouse informants like Samuelson to the same trash heap where other producers of unreliable confessions, like the thumb screw and the rubber hose, now lay idle.

MICHAEL SNEDEKER is a defense attorney and author of Down in the Valley. He can be reached at: MSnedeker@capsf.org

 

 

 

 

 

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