Jailhouse Informants’ Testimony Deserves Greater Scrutiny

Jailhouse Informants’ Testimony Deserves Greater Scrutiny

If you remember the summer of 2001, you’ll recall the name Chandra Levy. She was a 24-year-old graduate student and Federal Bureau of Prisons intern who disappeared on May 1 as she was getting ready to leave Washington, D.C., and return to her family’s home in California.

The reason her disappearance flooded the airwaves and filled newspapers were the discovery she had been having an affair with her hometown Congressman, who was several decades older and married. Though he was eventually cleared, suspicion and speculation were long rife the legislator might somehow be involved in her disappearance.

Almost a year later, Chandra’s remains were found in a remote area of Washington’s largest park, and police had virtually no evidence to pursue. Years later, however, Armando Morales, a five-time felon in federal prison, told authorities he knew who had committed the murder. According to Morales, a young illegal alien from El Salvador, Ingmar Guandique, had confessed to him while they were cellmates for six weeks.

Morales explained that Guandique felt comfortable talking to him about the murder because they were members of affiliated gangs. Guandique was in the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (he carries its name tattooed on his neck). At the same time, Morales helped found and served as an enforcer for an affiliated gang in Fresno, California.

The new lead intrigued police and prosecutors since Guandique was serving time for separate attacks, committed only months after Chandra Levy had disappeared, on two female joggers, who had been running through the same D.C. park where her remains were later found. Even without any physical evidence or eyewitness testimony tying Guandique to the Levy case, prosecutors won a conviction against him in 2010, with the informant Morales, the star witness. A few months later, Guandique received a 60-year sentence.

The story doesn’t end there, however. Guandique’s public defenders kept digging into Morales’ account and found evidence of glaring holes which prosecutors knew of, but failed to disclose to the defense. For example, asked why he had not come forward earlier, Morales said he “didn’t know how” to do so when it turned out he was an experienced snitch. Morales also falsely denied having given pro-prosecution testimony in other cases.

There were so many discrepancies and disclosure lapses that prosecutors eventually stopped opposing Guandique’s lawyers’ request for a new trial, which a judge has ordered (it’s due to start in May). Morales may testify again, but this time he’ll undoubtedly get more scrutiny, and the record will be more complete.

This case is far from an isolated exception. Over ten years ago, the Northwest University law school’s Center on Wrongful Conviction studied 111 cases of persons who were sentenced to death but later exonerated and found jailhouse informant testimony figured in almost 46%. In California’s Orange County, allegations local jail officials maintained a “snitch tank” providing tailored testimony led a judge to order the district attorney off the now-stalled case of an accused serial killer. In northern Virginia, local prosecutors plan to present murder trial testimony from two jailhouse informants, both with psychological problems; one hallucinates and claims he knows where Osama bin Laden is hiding (Venezuela, he says).

The frequent unreliability of jailhouse informants motivated by shorter sentences has led several states to try to legislate safeguards. Still, thus far, only Illinois has succeeded (it requires hearings on the reliability of jailhouse informants and mandates full disclosure to the defense). But given the predictability of such problems, shouldn’t more states be working to follow the Illinois example?

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com, and PrisonLawBlog.com.