Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Rat Trap

Death row exonerations expose failings of the `snitch system'

Levon Jones is supposed to be dead. If the state of North Carolina had its way, Jones, 49, would have been strapped to a gurney years ago, hooked to an IV and pumped full of a lethal, three-drug cocktail until he asphyxiated. Instead, on May 2, he walked out of prison a free man after spending 13 years on death row, and another 24 months locked up awaiting retrial - all for a murder he almost certainly did not commit.

Jones - known to friends and family as "Bo" - was released with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) Capital Punishment Project after the prosecution's star witness recanted her testimony against him. (Lovely Lorden, a former girlfriend, admitted she'd collected $4,000 in reward money in exchange for testifying against Jones.)

He was an easy target: an African-American ex-con with a history of mental illness and violent behavior. When Lorden came forward with her story - a full three years after the 1987 shooting of a local bootlegger named Leamon Grady - Jones was doing time on an unrelated assault charge. The prosecution felt little obligation to question the veracity of Lorden's claim. And if the witness is to be believed today, investigators actually helped her keep her story straight.

As a result of Lorden's testimony - and despite the lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime - a jury convicted Jones in 1993 and he was sentenced to die for Grady's killing.

What Jones' attorneys didn't know at the time - and, as it turns out, didn't really bother trying to uncover - is that Lovely Lorden had made something of a career out of testifying against people close to her. By her own admission, she has aided law enforcement in dozens of investigations and says she helped police make cases against several other boyfriends, as well as her own brother and sons. What's more, her work as a confidential informant didn't stop after Jones was sent to death row. Jones' attorneys sent In These Times copies of receipts that show Lorden was paid money at least seven times for her work as a confidential informant from December 2003 to April 2004, while Jones sat in jail.

Today, Lorden contends she testified against Jones under pressure from the police, in particular Dalton Jones (no relation), the lead officer in the case. That doesn't surprise Jones' ACLU attorney, Brian Stull, who says it's not uncommon for police to find a suspect first and worry about making a case later. "I think often times they look at the usual suspects," Stull says. "I think Dalton Jones was thinking, `This is a dangerous person, and whether he did it or whether he didn't, I'm going to get him off the street.' "

Jones owes his freedom in part to an astute federal judge who sensed something amiss with Lorden's testimony during a 2006 penalty appeal. In granting Jones a new trial, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle, of the Eastern District of North Carolina, noted Lorden's statements to police were "riddled with inconsistencies" and "reflect that Lorden is unable to fairly and reliably describe the circumstances of the offense."

Unfortunately, the case of Levon Jones is not an anomaly. He is the fifth death row prisoner to be exonerated in the past year. Since December, North Carolina alone has released three inmates from death row after it was determined that they did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted. Of these three men, two, including Jones, were convicted on the false testimony of snitches.

The other, Jonathon Hoffman, was released in December 2007 after spending seven years on death row. His freedom came when the prosecution's key witness - Hoffman's cousin - admitted that he had lied to get back at Hoffman for stealing money and had been both paid for his testimony and given a reduced sentence for bank robbery. At the time of Hoffman's trial, prosecutors withheld the deal from defense attorneys, the jury and even the judge.

In a country where more than one out of every 100 citizens is now incarcerated, criminal justice advocates are scrutinizing the way in which police and prosecutors go about getting the information to pursue and prosecute suspects. This inquiry has increasingly focused on the extent to which incentivized informants and jailhouse snitches are contributing to the convictions of innocent people.

Falsified informant testimony accounts for nearly half of all wrongful convictions in capital cases nationwide, according to data from Northwestern University Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions. Since 1973, 129 innocent people were released from death row - more than 50 of whom were sentenced to death based partly or wholly on false informant testimony, according to the Center.

Alexandra Natapoff, an associate professor of law at Loyola University and one of the country's foremost authorities on the problems with paid informants, thinks that's just the tip of the iceberg. "We have the most data on capital and homicide convictions because they are the most high profile," she says, "so we have no idea how many wrongful convictions there are in larceny cases or assault cases or any other because nobody is paying any attention to those." Natapoff has written extensively on the role of snitch testimony in wrongful convictions and says that informants have become law enforcement's investigative tool of choice. "The government's use of criminal informants is largely secretive, unregulated and unaccountable," she says. "This lack of oversight and quality control leads to wrongful convictions, more crime, disrespect for the law and sometimes even official corruption."

She continues: "If the criminal system can't get homicide cases right, then it's very unlikely that we're getting other things right."

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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