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The Role of Jailhouse Informants in Massachusetts Criminal Prosecutions

Earlier today I read a blog post written by Orange County criminal lawyer Randy Collins discussing the role of jailhouse informants or snitches in helping prosecutors prove cases. It reminded me of just how difficult defending criminal cases can be when a client is locked up awaiting trial. The use of informants always had and always will have its place in proving crimes. Yet is seems more prevalent these days in Massachusetts, particularly in regard to murder prosecutions. There was a time when the fear of retaliation scared would be informants from helping prosecutors. Newly designed jails and segregated prison populations have contributed to quelling these fears and encouraging informants to cooperate. This post looks at some jailhouse informant issues I have encountered and how to defend against them.

What Benefit Do Snitches Get?

Usually people who cooperate have pending cases or are serving sentences. They offer to trade information for early release from prison or for lenient sentences. Most of these people have a history of cooperating. They often have experience as street informants who parlay their trade when they eventually go to jail. They are convicted criminals and usually have a history of lying but the prosecution or sometimes the police will take care of them if they help out with serious cases.

How Do Jailhouse Informants Get Their Information?

There are several ways. Newspaper articles and blog posts are among the most common. However, the level of detail in these writings is usually inadequate to get them the help they are looking for. Reading an inmates’ police reports and related discovery materials is the way they get the most productive information. This can be done surreptitiously, i.e. when the defendant is taking a shower or out in the yard. Clever snitches read and absord the details of the reports and subsequently report to the authorities that the defendant “confessed” to them or “bragged” to them about what he did and how he did it. Other informants take on the role of mentor to the defendant, particularly to those who are new to pretrial confinement. They forge a friendship with the defendant and ask to them to share their story and discovery so that they can make sure that the lawyer is doing his job. They pretend to be helping the accused when in fact they are capitalizing on their relationship to learn as much as they can about the person and the crime so that they can relay this information to the district attorney. Between access to the discovery and the discussions the informants can usually provide a little extra detail to the district attorney.

Avoiding the Informant Trap

There are several things I tell my clients about snitches. First, never discuss your case with anyone except me. Second, don’t talk about the details of your case over the phone. Third, never have your discovery if you are in jail waiting for trial. Your lawyer will share everything with you when you meet. Fourth, never trust anyone who says they want to help you with your case. They don’t. They only want information from you so that they can hurt you. My clients who take my advice are never impacted by jailhouse informants. They can’t be because the informant has no access to the important information that will help him. Those who disregard my advice have had their problems. I remember one murder case I defended where my client agreed not to keep his discovery at the jail. Then, a month before trial he changed his mind and wanted his file. Seven witnesses were added to the district attorney’s witness list, all purporting to have heard my client’s confession.

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