The Drowning Man –Confidential Informants, Jailhouse Snitches, and Wrongful Convictions
When a murder happens, what do the police do? They get the bad guy, right? Then the prosecutors convict the bad guy so they can never hurt anyone again…
It’s a fairy-tale story that many people take for granted – we trust police and prosecutors to keep us safe. We want to trust the police and prosecutors. We need to trust them. We see the good cops and the hard-working, noble prosecutors on TV, on Law and Order, and in the movies, and it makes for a great, feel-good story.
But what happens when they don’t know who committed the crime?
Good, old-fashioned detective work will lead us to the bad guys every time, right? But what if it doesn’t? And then crowds are gathering outside the police department, holding candlelight vigils, there is a steady drumbeat in the media for justice, and an election is looming on the horizon.
Someone needs to be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted. And, when all else fails, confidential informants and jailhouse snitches will provide the “evidence” that good, old-fashioned detective work failed to turn up…
How Desperate Prosecutors Use Desperate Jailhouse Snitches to Get (Wrongful) Convictions
Every weak murder case where the prosecution is floundering seems to have a common thread – the jailhouse snitch that the defendant conveniently “confessed” to at the local jail. The informant who will almost certainly get time cut from their own sentence in exchange for their cooperation and testimony.
We have seen prosecutors literally pull people out for interviews at the local jail and ask them, do you have any information about Joe Defendant, who is going to trial in a few weeks? We call it “trolling the jail for witnesses.”
I mean, a defendant at the local jail who is looking at losing years or even decades or his or her life on their own charges wouldn’t have any reason to lie, right?
Of course, they would – what would you do to avoid losing your family, your home, your job, and your freedom? Many people, possibly most people, will tell a prosecutor or investigator exactly what they want to hear if they think it will help their own case. This is why nearly every murder case has jailhouse snitches on the witness list before the case gets to trial…
But how do they get information about a case if not from a confession?
Police and prosecutors give them the information. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched an interrogation video of a potential witness where the detective or prosecutor says, “You’re lying. You need to tell us the truth. We know that the truth is _________. So, tell us the truth!”
“Look, you can be a witness or a defendant. So just tell us the truth.”
“We know that your wife is involved in this robbery last year – when we charge her, your children will go straight to DSS. Tell us the truth and we will help her.”
Subornation of perjury?
Yes… but who’s going to arrest the prosecutor and charge him or her with subornation of perjury? No one.
The court will protect them, their office will protect them (because they are just doing what they were trained to do), no one will charge them with the crime they have committed, and SC’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel will give them a pass if a wayward defense attorney dares to file a grievance.
Discovery materials are sold and traded in jails. If you are charged with a crime and you are being held in jail pretrial, do not keep your discovery materials with you.
If they are stolen, they will be traded or sold, and jailhouse snitches will have enough information about your case to lie and attempt to get a deal for themselves. If anyone reads your discovery materials, they will have enough information to lie and get a deal for themselves.
Innocent conversations. If you are in jail, talking with your cellmate or anyone else about your case, and telling them what you are accused of and how you didn’t do it, you are giving that person enough information to lie and get a deal for themselves.
How do jailhouse snitches know about your case? Because, even though you did not “confess” like they are now saying, you told them about your case.
The Lie: Jailhouse Snitches Don’t Get Deals
In most cases, the prosecutor will never sign a written cooperation agreement that says, “I will reduce your sentence if you testify in this case.”
The prosecutor also will not say to the potential witness, “I will reduce your sentence if you testify in this case.” But the jailhouse snitches know. This isn’t his or her first rodeo, and they know how plea-bargaining works. Their lawyer might even tell them, “This is just how it works. The prosecutor’s not going to put it in writing, but I know that you will get a reduced sentence because that’s how it always works.”
At trial, the witness will testify. On cross-examination, the witness will slyly glance at their attorney who is watching from the audience and then say, “No one offered me any deals. No one promised me anything. I am testifying because it’s the right thing to do…”
The Drowning Man (Or, Never Trust a Man with a Family)
You may have heard the story about the drowning man.
When John’s boat began to sink, he was left in the middle of the lake with no life preserver, and he could not swim. Billy hears him from the shore – splashing, shouting, the desperate plea of a desperate man who is staring death in the face, trying to swim, trying to just get to the shore before the water fills his lungs.
Billy is a good man, and, without thinking, he immediately dives into the lake, and he makes it to John’s side within minutes to save him. As he reaches the place where John’s head has just disappeared beneath the water, he dives under, grabs John’s arm, and pulls him back to the surface.
He tries to hold John’s head above the surface as he turns toward the shore, treading water, and pulling John’s flailing body with him. But soon he is in a fight for his own life as John, panic-stricken, pushes Billy’s head beneath the water attempting to save himself and grab a lungful of air. John tries to break free, but Billy’s terror is too strong as he shoves John beneath the water again, arms and legs flailing, until, within minutes, both have drowned.
This jailhouse snitch is just like that drowning man – he is facing 30 years in prison for his own crimes, and he knows what it will be like, living in a cage, on a concrete floor, eating when guards tell him to eat, sleeping when guards tell him to sleep, living in constant fear of the other inmates, and never seeing his wife and family again.
He will do anything to save himself – even if it means drowning another man in the process by repeating the lies that the prosecutor wants you to hear. Whether the details came from the police, the prosecutor, stolen discovery, or rumors at the jailhouse, he knows what the prosecutor wants to hear and what will help the prosecutor get a conviction.
Worst of all, this is the only credible evidence that the prosecutor is giving you in this case – do you trust that a drowning man will tell you the truth when the prosecutor is offering him a lifeline in exchange for his testimony?
Would any person with a family and children refuse that lifeline when the prosecutor so casually tosses it to them? Does he want to be an honest man, or does he want to be a free man sleeping in his own bed and providing for his family?
Never trust a man with a family… when they are drowning, facing prison, and a prosecutor has thrown them a lifeline.
Criminal Defense Attorneys in Myrtle Beach and Columbia, SC
The criminal defense attorneys at the Thompson & Hiller Defense Firm focus exclusively on criminal defense cases in SC. We have obtained dismissals, pre-trial diversion resulting in dismissals, or acquittals following trial in hundreds of criminal cases, and we have a record of proven results.
If you have been charged with a crime in SC or if you think you may be under investigation, call us now at 843-444-6122 or contact us through our website for a free initial consultation to find out if we can help.