The fallacy of the good-hearted informant

An all too common scene in trials when a jailhouse snitch testifies is the elaborate song and dance performed by said snitch and the prosecutor to convince everyone (a bit too loudly) that there is no quid pro quo.

“Did you talk to anyone from the prosecutor’s office before coming forward with [insert damning piece of evidence]?”

“No, of course not.”

“Did anyone from the prosecutor’s office promise you anything in exchange for your testimony?”

“Not a damn thing.”

“Have you been told you’d get a reduction in your sentence for co-operating truthfully?”

“I wish I had, but no one has been so kind.”

“Is everything you’ve said been the truth?”

“Do I look like a liar?”

“So why did you come to us with this information?”

“Out of the goodness of my heart.”

That is what I shall henceforth call “the fallacy of the good-hearted informant”. You can picture it now, can’t you? The prosecutor winking, the informant nodding, the defendant eye-rolling, the judge snickering. The jury? Well, that’s the important question.

Does a jury buy this? Does anyone seriously believe that an inmate would testify without any expectation of a reward? Is there any inmate foolish enough to testify without an expectation?

Consider this: information is power in the criminal justice system. Not the truth. Information. When an inmate obtains information, there is but one thought on his mind: how do I use this to my advantage? How do I translate this into a lower sentence?

Sure, the prosecutor and the inmate may never actually utter the words “sentence modification”, but it is an unwritten understanding. That’s part of the game. The State knows it, the inmate knows it. If he cooperates, he will get some consideration. No one wants to be in jail, whether it is for 6 months or 60 years, and any little advantage that can be obtained, will be used. And the State has an incentive to offer modifications, too. If they really do stiff an informant and don’t reduce his sentence, the next guy will hear about it and will be more hesitant to come forward.

Confession is king and a confession to someone who is not law enforcement is even better. So you can bet every penny left in your 401K that three weeks after a conviction in this hypothetical trial, a motion for modification of sentence will be filed and the sentence of the informant will be reduced.

A chilling confession to a heinous crime is worth its weight in years. So, the next time you’re a juror in a criminal case and an informant testifies that he has no expectation of a reduction in his sentence, join the defendant in rolling your eyes and then tell the rest of the panel that he’s full of it during deliberations.

As for the defense attorneys (and in an effort to make this post more than just stating the obvious), what tricks do you find work best in countering this charade? Maybe someone should start keeping track of every time an informant has received a reduction in his/her sentence after testifying in a particular courthouse or with the blessings of a particular prosecutor’s office.

[For more posts on other fallacies and legal fictions, click here.]

3 thoughts on “The fallacy of the good-hearted informant

  1. Pingback: Legal Fictions & Gangs | Probable Cause

  2. Catinthewall

    Would it be allowed to show that, for example, out of the last 50 Jailed witness, so and so had their sentences reduced? Would a certain percentage be enough for the defense to exclude the witness on grounds of aforementioned quid pro quo?

    Reply

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