Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Deal or no deal? The struggle with jailhouse snitches

In the past five years, roughly 49,000 convicts had their sentences lessened for helping prosecutors.

Put yourself in a prosecutor’s shoes. Rilya Wilson, a 4-year-old girl in foster care has been missing for a decade, but no body has ever been found. Bureaucratic snafus at the Florida Department of Children and Families resulted in the girl’s disappearance not even being reported for 15 months. The foster mother Geralyn Graham was the likely suspect – a long-time grifter who had forged documents to keep collecting checks after Wilson’s vanishing, and was found to possess 10 different driver’s licenses at the time of her arrest – but there was no direct evidence tying her to the crime. With the police fresh out of leads, prosecutors turned to criminals to provide the testimony necessary for conviction.

And so when Geralyn Graham finally went to trial for murder, kidnapping and child abuse last month in Miami, the most damaging testimony came from three jailhouse snitches who said Graham made incriminating statements to them while behind bars. That testimony didn’t come cheap for prosecutors. Robin Lunceford, who was serving a life sentence for armed robbery, took the stand to tell jurors that Graham said she had suffocated Wilson with a pillow because she thought the little girl was possessed by demons. Lunceford said Graham then buried the corpse near an undisclosed body of water. For her testimony, Lunceford’s attorneys hammered out a plea deal with prosecutors: her life sentence would be reduced to 10 years in prison.

Another prisoner, Maggie Carr, told jurors that Graham spoke about the case against her, saying that if there was no body, there was no murder. Graham allegedly said that the body would never be found because “the critters” would take care of it. Carr, who is serving a life sentence for a 1991 murder, believed she would get a positive recommendation from the State’s Attorney’s Office in her upcoming parole hearing.

Geralyn Graham listens to closing arguments at her trial. Photo: Peter Andrew Bosch/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images

But the veracity of the jailhouse snitches was placed at issue by (what else?) another jailhouse witness – this one called by defense attorneys. Cindy McCloud, who served prison time for drug charges, testified against Lunceford and Carr. McCloud said that Lunceford said the story was “All lies. All of it.” McCloud said that Carr asked Lunceford to include her in the plea deal so she could get favorable treatment as well.

A third snitch, Ramona Tavia, told the court that Graham had also confessed the murder to her when they were cellmates – but jail records showed the two never shared a cell at the time the confession supposedly took place.

The Graham case highlights the inherent dangers of using jailhouse snitches as key witnesses. Unlike so many other eyewitnesses, snitches have nothing to lose and everything to gain by tailoring – or making up entirely—their story to impress prosecutors. Once a person is convicted and imprisoned, there’s precious little they can do to help convince authorities of their innocence. So instead they can be tempted to buy a sentence reduction by pointing to someone else’s guilt.

According to the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, the jailhouse snitch system dates back to 18th Century England, when Parliament instituted remuneration to snitches who gave evidence against criminals. Northwestern’s 2005 report on “The Snitch System” posits that the practice of jailhouse snitch testimony came to America with the Pilgrims.

Rilya Wilson. Undated photo/police handout.

At the time of publication,”The Snitch System” found 51 instances of people sent to death row with the help of snitches – defined in the report as ”witnesses with incentives to lie.” Since capital punishment resumed in the 1970s, 45.9% of wrongful convictions could be blamed on snitch testimony – more than false scientific evidence or erroneous eyewitness identification. The report quotes Leslie Vernon White, a career criminal in California who gave false testimony in dozens of cases. White would tell interviewers he lived by slogans such as “Don’t go to the pen, send a friend,” and “If you can’t do the time, drop a dime.”

In 2012, a USA TODAY investigation showed that the prevalence and effectiveness of jailhouse snitching on sentence reduction – in the past five years, roughly 49,000 convicts had their sentences lessened for helping prosecutors – has led to a new jailhouse occupation: criminal information broker.

Marcus Watson, an inmate in a Georgia Federal prison, would sell information about crimes on the outside to other prisoners, who could then pawn that dirt off on prosecutors in exchange for a lesser sentence. The price for brokered information ran from the tens of thousands up to $250,000 in one case, according to the USA Today investigation.

In an ironic twist, authorities were tipped off to Watson’s scheme by another inmate looking for a sentence reduction. Watson would later accuse the state of hypocrisy in an interview: “The biggest buyer of information is the government, but they pay in years.” Watson has not been prosecuted for the brokering – he’s still in prison on a 2007 federal gun charge, and still angling for a reduced sentence for the “substantial assistance” he has provided to federal agents.

The case of Michael Hash illustrates another way jailhouse snitch testimony can be used for impure ends: in Hash’s case, law enforcement allegedly used a known jailhouse snitch as a de facto police agent in order to attain a conviction. Hash was just 15 when his 74-year-old mail carrier Thelma Scroggins was shot to death in 1996. A new sheriff reopened the cold case four years later and the then 19-year-old Hash found himself charged with murder, despite limited evidence.

Michael Hash at age 15. Photo: Norm Shafer/Washington Post/Getty Images

While incarcerated pre-trial, Hash was moved from the local jail in Culpeper, Virginia to Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail specifically to be housed with noted jailhouse snitch Paul Carter. Carter, who was being housed on federal drug charges, has testified roughly 20 times – so it was little surprise that he would later testify against Hash. At trial, Carter said prosecutors had not promised him any lenience for his testimony – yet he was released shortly after the Hash trial.

Last year, Michael Hash was released from prison after 12 years when his conviction was overturned due to “outrageous misconduct” by prosecutors and law enforcement. Hash has since filed a federal civil lawsuit against the Commonwealth Attorney, Sheriff and jailhouse snitch (among others) for violating Hash’s constitutional right to due process and malicious prosecution.

The lawsuit maintains that Paul Carter “made himself available to anybody and everybody in the enforcement community when he felt he had some information that was helpful.” While he was awaiting sentence himself, Carter allegedly told his lawyer “I’m not still involve[d] with this crime life. I just find things out to cut my time down.” Hash’s attorneys say law enforcement officials met with Carter beforehand to brief him on the case against Hash before setting the two up to meet in jail.

Hash seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages – as well as reimbursement of legal fees. No trial date is set at this time.

Michael Hash being visited at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center by his parents, Jeff and Pam Hash.

For those who are imprisoned on the word of jailhouse snitches of dubious veracity, it’s a crushing blow. Shahon Cumbo, a 24-year-old Virginia man convicted of murder last year and sentenced to life imprisonment recently wrote an op-ed for railing against the use of criminal informants. “Jailhouse snitches are convicted criminals; 98 percent are felons. Some have pending cases and shouldn’t be allowed to testify against anybody from in the jail… [They] commit a crime, go to jail and then make up evidence against inmates and others.”

While Cumbo clearly has an axe to grind against the system that has judged him guilty despite his professed innocence, his points are hard to simply shrug off: “Ask yourself, what if I, or somebody that I cared for, were in a situation like this?” he writes. “Remember this can happen to anybody; you don’t even have to go to jail to get lied about and convicted of a crime you didn’t commit.”

Clearly, prosecutors will always have a difficult time sorting out the real truth from the self-serving fictions of unsavory characters who have already run afoul of the law. But the truth as any prosecutor will tell you is: criminals run with other criminals. As a general rule, they don’t scheme with, or confide in, law-abiding citizens.

Juries must weigh the testimony of jailhouse snitches with skepticism, but allow for themselves the possibility that a person who’s lied in the past isn’t necessarily lying on the stand. What did jurors decide after contradictory jailhouse testimony in the Geralyn Graham case? On January 25, 2013 , Graham was convicted of child abuse and kidnapping – but the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict on the top charge of murder, forcing Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez to declare a mistrial. If the jury sent a mixed message about jailhouse snitches through its decision, post-verdict remarks by the prosecution team implied they wouldn’t be giving up the practice anytime soon. “We thank them very much,” prosecutor Joshua Weintraub said of his controversial star witnesses, “and whether the defense wants to call them snitches and rats, we call them good citizens.”

Originally published 02/05/2013.

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