When a Virginia man faces a possible death sentence in a murder trial later this year, his fate may rest on the testimony of four jailhouse informants, two of whom were initially found mentally incompetent to stand trial in their own cases.
The case of Joaquin S. Rams could soon become part of a growing national backlash over the government’s use of testimony from “snitches” — inmates who offer information against other inmates in exchange for lighter sentences or other benefits — to obtain convictions, sparked by a significant number of wrongful convictions attributed to false informant testimony.
The issue erupted last year in Orange County, Calif., when a capital case against an admitted mass-murderer, and numerous other murder cases, stalled because of the discovery of a “snitch tank”: a ring of county jail informants, closely managed by jail deputies, dedicated to testifying against fellow inmates. A judge ordered the county district attorney off the case, and the prosecution of a man accused of killing eight people in 2011 has been delayed indefinitely.
And in Washington last year, a judge ordered a new trial for the man accused of killing federal intern Chandra Levy in 2001 after defense attorneys successfully challenged the history and credibility of a key jailhouse informant in the 2010 trial.
The use of informants is not new, nor are the challenges to their credibility. But informants’ role in recent wrongful convictions and high-profile cases is causing lawmakers nationwide to look at regulating their use.
In Texas, the revelation of false testimony by a snitch against a man who was later executed led to the introduction of legislation to ban informant testimony in death penalty cases. In Illinois, the law requires courts to hold “reliability hearings” before a jailhouse informant can testify. A similar proposed law in North Carolina failed last year. In Washington state, the legislature is considering a bill requiring judges to weigh informants’ “incentivized” credibility before trial. And several high-profile murder cases in the Tidewater area of Virginia took drastic turns in recent years when jailhouse snitches were found to be unreliable.
In Rams’s case, in Prince William County, Va., one of the informants, who pleaded guilty to the murders of three people in Manassas, Va., in 2011, reported frequent hallucinations and said he knew the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Another was diagnosed as a “malingerer” who was purposely lying to evade trial.
In arguing to exclude the informants from the Rams trial, defense attorney Joni C. Robin argued that such testimony was “inherently unreliable, that it involves witnesses who categorically are more willing to lie or perjure themselves than other categories of witnesses.”
The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s law school found in 2005 that of the 111 people sentenced to death since the 1970s and later exonerated, “snitch” testimony was involved in 45.9 percent of the cases. “That makes snitches the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases,” the report concluded.
Defense attorneys and academics have long called on states to initiate safeguards so that jail cell information is either recorded or corroborated, but only Illinois has written anything into law.
“There have been multiple snitch scandals in multiple places,” said Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor who studies wrongful convictions. “Since more states are looking at wrongful convictions, it’s becoming part of the conversation.”
Informants present dilemmas to both sides of a criminal case. For prosecutors, they must decide whether to believe that one inmate confessed crucial information to the informant, what the informant’s history is, whether to wire the informant for recorded conversation with the target and what they are willing to trade for the information. For the defense, attorneys must try to refute a typically unrecorded conversation, investigate the background of the informant and then convince a jury that sworn testimony is a lie.
Officials with two national prosecutors’ groups said they would tread very carefully with jailhouse informants. David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and a former deputy prosecutor in California, said prosecutors “have to be able to specifically articulate the reason you’re using an informant and making a deal.” And judges must exercise “court oversight before that testimony is admitted. Can you corroborate it, or did they just pick up the newspaper?”
But prosecutors don’t necessarily favor laws that regulate informant use. Josh Marquis, a county prosecutor in Oregon who is with the National District Attorneys Association, said: “I think jurors are very discerning. We don’t believe it’s appropriate for Congress or state legislatures to take away from juries what weight to give evidence.”
Defense attorneys strongly disagree. “Jurors believe jailhouse informants,” said Doug Ramseur, a Virginia capital public defender. “They think criminals are not that smart and they sit around and brag about their crimes.”
Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert, the chief prosecutor in the county for 47 years, said it was “amazing to me that these people [defendants] will talk [to informants], despite their counsel’s advice not to. Informants do have very valuable information at times.” Asked how his office corroborates an informant’s claims, he said, “Many times they will know things that only the defendant would know.”
Ebert acknowledged having to cut deals with convicts but added, “I’ve often told juries, ‘Sometimes you have to pet a skunk to catch another one.’ ”
Ebert declined to discuss the pending Rams capital case, in which the defendant is accused of drowning his 15-month-old son in his Manassas home in 2012 to collect more than $500,000 in life insurance. Rams’s attorneys argued in one motion that investigators “sought out and elicited the testimony of at least two jailhouse snitches” after Virginia’s chief medical examiner reversed the initial autopsy finding of drowning and ruled that the child’s cause of death couldn’t be determined.
In October, prosecutors disclosed four jail informants who may testify against Rams. The most notable was Jose Reyes Alfaro, who in February 2011 fatally shot three people and nearly killed a fourth during a rampage in Manassas. In 2011 and 2012, a judge found Reyes Alfaro incompetent to stand trial. A psychologist wrote in 2012 that “Reyes Alfaro’s reporting of past events, actions and relationships give me pause to question his ability to distinguish memories from fantasy.”
Reyes Alfaro was later sent to Central State Hospital, administered psychiatric drugs and treatment, and found to be restored to sanity in 2013, although a psychiatrist noted that Reyes Alfaro “described a number of far-fetched ideas about his past” such as being a member of an elite paramilitary force and “claiming to know the existence of Osama bin Laden in Venezuela.”
Reyes Alfaro also “has previously falsely incriminated other individuals,” Robin, the defense attorney, argued in November, “leading to the arrest of those other individuals,” who were later released. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to three counts of capital murder and received seven life sentences.
In exchange for Reyes Alfaro’s testimony, prosecutors said they asked the state Department of Corrections to move him away from Wallens Ridge State Prison, which houses many of the state’s most serious offenders.
Prosecutors also want to use Jamal A. Thompson, an Oakland, Calif., man arrested on charges of prostituting a 15-year-old runaway girl at a Manassas hotel, against Rams. Thompson also was initially found incompetent to stand trial, but when he was sent to Central State, doctors there found him to be engaged in “volitional malingering . . . intentional feigning or exaggeration of psychiatric, cognitive or physical symptoms for secondary gain, such as . . . to avoid prosecution.”
Prince William prosecutors also listed Gavin Simms, who had multiple convictions for theft, as a witness and said he received no considerations for his testimony. But when one of Rams’s attorneys attended Simms’s sentencing several weeks later, court records show, they found that prosecutors had agreed to dismiss nine felony theft charges and recommend a sentence of 18 months. He faced up to four years in prison.
The prosecutors also said they may call Aric A. Smith, who pleaded guilty to randomly shooting and killing retired ATF agent Gregory Holley as he walked his dog in Woodbridge, Va., in 2013.
Rams’s attorneys asked Prince William Circuit Court Judge Craig D. Johnston to hold a “reliability hearing” to determine whether the four informants could testify, similar to a “Daubert” hearing held in civil cases to rule whether scientific evidence is admissible.
Johnston declined. “There’s no Virginia case that I know of that authorizes such,” the judge said. “I understand the defense’s frustration. . . . But that said, that’s the way we do business in criminal cases, rightly or wrongly.”
Rams’s attorneys declined to comment on the case. The trial was scheduled to begin this week but was postponed at the defense’s request. Rams, 43, has maintained his innocence in the death of his son, Prince McLeod Rams. Three other people who were in the house when the boy fell unconscious say that Rams did not kill him.
Before another capital murder trial, Ramseur was the attorney for Christopher Artis in a Suffolk, Va., case in 2012. Ramseur listened to jailhouse phone recordings because he had been warned that the Western Tidewater Regional Jail in Suffolk “was a snitch factory.” He said he found “there was a network of guys trying to corroborate stories so they could get on a capital case and reduce their own case. I heard a guy call his mother and instruct her on how to look at my client’s file.”
At trial, he said four informants were “clearly on tape admitting they were lying to get their sentence reduced.” Prosecutors quickly agreed to a mid-trial plea deal for second-degree murder and 10 years for Artis. In Virginia Beach, the 2010 slaying of a Norfolk police officer remains unsolved after prosecutors in 2014 dropped all charges against two men because they found jailhouse witnesses had lied.
Prosecutors in the District last year acquiesced in the high-profile Chandra Levy case, in which Ingmar Guandique was convicted largely on the testimony of jailhouse informant Armando Morales. Morales testified that Guandique confessed the slaying to him.
But Morales, a convicted drug dealer and gang member, lied when asked whether he had cooperated with authorities in other cases, and Guandique’s attorneys claim the confession testimony was also false. Last May, the U.S. attorney’s office dropped its opposition to Guandique’s demand for a new trial.
Now, “we understand the full scope of just how problematic criminal informants can be,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
“The rules permit precisely this result. Weak discovery rules, unfettered prosecutorial discretion and payments to criminals. What did we think would happen? It’s time to ask why the American criminal justice system permits these practices to exist.”
An earlier version of this article stated that Armando Morales, the chief informant in the Chandra Levy trial, was accused of lying about testifying in other cases. He was accused of lying about his cooperation with law enforcement.