Mar
02

Beware The Jailhouse Snitch: The Stephen King Effect

I lost a case today that I should have won. Period. And I lost the case, in part, because the conventional wisdom is wrong. Although lawyers and judges have scorn for jailhouse snitches, I am persuaded that jurors love them. A trio of snitches put my client away for life.

George Leniart was convicted of three counts of capital felony and one count of murder for the kidnap, rape and murder of 15-year-old April Dawn Pennington in May 1996. He was not charged with the crime until April 2008. For the past two months, we tried this unique case: the state had no evidence of a body and not a shred of physical evidence to corroborate the claim that the woman was, in fact, dead.

But it had the testimony of a young man now serving time for the rape of another child. He testified that he was with my client the night Ms. Pennington went missing. Although this young man claimed not to have been present when the victim was killed, he claimed that my client later confessed to the murder. The state knew all of this for more than a decade but did not charge a crime. The state also knew from the get-go that my client was accused of a prior rape. (The trial court permitted the jury to hear from the prior rape victim claiming her testimony showed evidence of a common scheme.) Armed with this evidence, the state did nothing for a dozen years.

But then three jailhouse informants surfaced. These men claimed my client made various, and inconsistent, inculpatory statements. Armed with this melange of evidence, a warrant was obtained.

I sought to bring Alexandra Natapoff in as a witness. She is a professor who has testified before Congress about the unreliability of jailhouse snitch testimony. She has written law review articles and a book on snitching. She testified outside the jury's presence about the growing data that snitch testimony yields wrongful convictions. The judge never permitted the jury to hear what Professor Natapoff had to say.

Common wisdom among lawyers is that jurors don't like snitches. I beg to differ. I have long thought that snitches are as close as most jurors get to reality television. Men are dragged from the belly of the beast, and shamble from the lock up to take the stand in prison dungarees and chains. Guards sit next to the witness. Jurors get to look evil in the eye for perhaps the first and only in time in their lives. My hunch is that jurors are titillated by this testimony. Why else do people watch crime shows? An anesthetized culture seeks cheap thrills in the sorrow of others.

Each of the snitches in this case admitted to crimes, lying, their hopes for leniency for crimes they do not acknowledge committing. Yet the jury apparently swallowed the whole show. In the most basic sense, I failed my client. That hurts.

The allegations against my client were horrible. The testimony was that he chopped the victim into pieces and disposed of her in a lobster pot, according to one of the snitches. There was no evidence the police even searched for lobster pots, this notwithstanding the fact my client was a fisherman.

We counted on the presumption of innocence as a defense in this case. How do you prepare an alibi for a night some 14 years ago? But instead, a presumption of evil kicked in. Jurors were mesmerized, shocked and appalled by the sound of the allegations. This together with evidence of a prior rape permitted them to sketch a picture of a kidnap, rape, murder and dismemberment for which the only evidence was the word only of men who acknowledged that they were liars.

Be careful, I tell you. Beware the Stephen King effect. Jurors can be seduced by a good tale, even a whopper if told by those they are disposed to believe. Far from mistrusting snitches, many jurors love them. A snitch is comfortable acquaintance with evil. And evil, as we know, has made Stephen King a millionaire.

Of course, I will appeal on my client's behalf. It was error of the trial court not to permit jurors to hear about the growing consensus among professionals about the unreliability of jailhouse informants. And it was error, too, to permit the jury to use evidence of one rape to prove the commission of another for which their was no physical evidence whatsoever. But those are topics for another today. Today I marvel and mourn.
Comments (5)
Posted on March 3, 2010 at 4:50 pm by Norm Pattis
Good argument. But what about the prior rape?
Good argument. But what about the prior rape?

Posted on March 3, 2010 at 11:55 am by Thomas
Might it have worked to argue that "Maybe the snit...
Might it have worked to argue that "Maybe the snitches are telling the truth about what my client said to them. However, you have no reason to believe that my client was telling the truth when he talked to them"?

Posted on March 3, 2010 at 7:08 am by Henry Berry
The use of confidential informants is even more pe...
The use of confidential informants is even more pernicious than Pattis describes here, which is atrocious. In my own case, state's attorneys dismayed and angered that I had the audacity to report a crime of theft of costly medical films of mine by attorneys at a Bridgeport corporate law firm got an illegal wiretap on my phone as a starting point for an elaborate, long-running attempt to entrap me and get me into jail and ruin my reputation; which malicious activities morphed into witness intimidation. Perjurious statements from directions of state's attorneys must have been in the wiretap application. When in a civil case I sought documents leading to the illegal wiretap to find out just who was responsible for it, the (former) Fairfield County State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict refused to turn these over to me--and was found in default, thus in effect admitting to my accusations. I won't go into all of the repercussions of my exposure of the crimes and corruption within public and private circles of the CT legal system here--but to name a couple, there have been resignations under pressure and the hasty dropping of an investigation into a prominent politician. I have seen that state law-enforcement officials are willing to sacrifice just about anything to keep in place this practice of the use of confidential informants. A confidential informant in a trial is like playing poker where the joker is wild, and the state is dealt as many jokers as it wants. The state can usually make up just about any hand it wants.

Posted on March 2, 2010 at 5:52 pm by Walter Reaves
My experience has been the same as yours. I have n...
My experience has been the same as yours. I have never seen a jury reject an informant. The problem in most cases is that there are several of them, and jurors seem to think that they all couldn't be lying.

Posted on March 2, 2010 at 5:42 pm by Mike
In an era of narcissism, it's better that a story ...
In an era of narcissism, it's better that a story be compelling than true.

Lawyers are modern day gladiators - not in the TLC/pseudo-sense, but in the performance sense. "Are you not entertained?!"
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About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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www.normpattis.com

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis

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Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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