Few things in criminal cases have less reliability and invite more prosecutorial misconduct than the "cellmate snitch" tactic. Called "jumping on the bus," what often happens is that prosecutors and police feed information to the cellmate who then testifies that the accused "confessed" to him (or her) all the details of the crime. In return, the person testifying receives benefits like early parole, or a favorable plea deal.
The practice is insidious because it invites the worst kind of prosecutorial misconduct: Prosecutors knowingly introducing perjury and playing a role in constructing testimony that they know is not true. Unfortunately, this happens all the time, and the courts refuse to put a stop to it. Award-winning journalist Bill Moushey explains how this tactic works in federal court:
In Florida, prisoners call the scam "jumping on the bus," and it is as tantalizing as it is perverse. Inmates in federal prisons barter or buy information that only an insider to a crime could know — often from informants with access to confidential federal crime files.People remember when the murder of Chandra Levy hit the headlines almost a decade ago. Originally, the prime suspect was Congressman Gary Condit (D-California), who had engaged in an affair with Levy. While no evidence pointed to him, nonetheless the adverse publicity destroyed his political career.
The prisoners memorize it and get others to do the same. Then, to win sentence reductions, they testify about crimes that might have been committed while they were in prison, by people they’ve never met, in places they’ve never been. The scam succeeds only because of the tacit approval of federal law enforcement officers.
Cocaine smuggler Jose Goyriena used "jump on the bus" testimony to help federal prosecutors put three men in prison for life, and he was set to do it again for prosecutors who promised to cut his 27 year sentence by 10 years or more.
Prosecutors knew Goyriena had bragged about his lies to cellmates, but the prosecutors didn’t reveal what they’d heard to any of the men Goyriena had helped condemn — violating one of the fundamental tenets of American justice. It was defense attorneys who finally caught Goyriena in the scam.
This was a "cold case." There was no DNA evidence, no body, and nothing to tie the case to anyone. However, Levy's body later was found and interest in the case resurfaced. Finally, the D.C. police decided to charge Ingmar Guandique, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, with the crime. Guandique already was serving time for attacking joggers in D.C., and Levy supposedly had been jogging when she disappeared, so the link seemed worthwhile.
However, police had no other evidence by which to tie Guandique to the crime. That was not a barrier, unfortunately, as police used the "cellmate snitch" practice to square the circle, and D.C. prosecutors last week got a conviction against him. According to the Christian Science Monitor:
Prosecutors Amanda Haines and Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez obtained a conviction even though they had no eyewitnesses and no DNA evidence linking Guandique to Levy. And Guandique never confessed to police. Prosecutors hung their hopes in large part on a former cellmate of Guandique, Armando Morales, who testified that Guandique confided in him that he killed Levy.I'm sorry, but this is not "evidence" in any sense of the word. Unfortunately, the "journalists" covering this story did not try to find out what kind of deal was struck for Morales in exchange for his testimony.
Morales said Guandique was worried about being labeled a rapist by fellow inmates if word got out that he was a suspect in the Levy case. According to Morales, Guandique admitted killing Levy as part of an attempted robbery, but said he never raped her.
The government also presented testimony from two women who were attacked by Guandique in May and July of 2001 in Rock Creek Park. In both cases, Guandique attacked the women from behind while they jogged on isolated trails but ran off after each woman fought him off.
Defense attorneys said Morales' testimony couldn't be trusted. They also pointed to DNA from an unknown male that was found on Levy's black running tights. The DNA matched neither Guandique nor Condit, and the defense said it was powerful evidence that the wrong person was on trial. Prosecutors argued the DNA was the result of contamination during the testing process.
Somehow, I doubt seriously that Morales simply testified out of his great concern for justice. Furthermore, this kind of testimony has a long and sordid history of being pure and unadulterated perjury, and while one cannot prove a negative, it is better not to introduce it at all unless a prosecutor can be 100 percent sure of its veracity.
Obviously, I cannot say that Guandique is innocent of the crime, but I can say that the evidence against him easily could have been evidence against anyone else that prosecutors chose to put on trial. There really was nothing specific to tie him directly to this murder other than very questionable testimony.
Why did prosecutor do it? First, there was a lot of pressure to "solve" the case, and American prosecutors today no longer care whether or not the person convicted actually committed the crime. No, they are way beyond that point; any warm body will do, just as long as there are no political ramifications for going after the wrong person.
Second, the courts are eager not only to "solve" cold cases, but also to allow in testimony that does not even fall into the "questionable" category. For all of the supposed sophistication of modern evidence gathering (as seen on TV), American courts today are quite primitive. Prosecutors, judges, and the compliant media are willing to let in outright lies or testimony that does not pass a smell test and then claim that brilliant sleuthing has "cracked" a case. It is a sign of the times, and the sign is sinister.