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.