Saturday, December 2, 2006
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December 02, 2006
Jailhouse 'confessions' often problematic
Snitching -- the practice of ratting out cellmates in exchange for favorable treatment -- is endemic in the American justice system. Prosecutors defend the practice, portraying snitch testimony as a reliable indicator of guilt.
Maybe they shouldn't. Independent reviews suggest that jailhouse informants can be wildly unreliable. Some inmates make a practice of offering "valuable" testimony in exchange for concessions like shorter sentences.
Floridians got to know one snitch recently: Clarence Zacke, a convicted rapist and murderer who tempted prosecutors with news that another man had confessed to a heinous rape during a prison-van ride. Zacke's testimony helped keep Wilton Dedge in prison -- until DNA tests proved that Dedge was not guilty. After serving 22 years in prison, Dedge walked free in 2004.
A study by Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions finds that snitch testimony is the No. 1 cause of wrongful convictions in death-penalty cases, with snitches involved in nearly 46 percent of overturned convictions.
Other states have put sharp curbs on the use of jailhouse informants. Florida should. At the least, the Legislature should require a caution to juries that jailhouse testimony can be highly unreliable and ban prosecutors from offering any incentive, be it favorable treatment or a reduced sentence, in exchange for testimony. That prohibition would have to be carefully crafted, because -- as the Northwestern study points out -- the system often relies on "implicit" rewards for snitching, rather than direct promises.
Snitch cases don't always involve innocence. In the case of Angel Diaz, convicted of the murder of a Miami bar owner along with two other men, snitch testimony means the difference between life in prison and lethal injection. Unless courts step in, Diaz may well be executed for a murder where the evidence suggests that he didn't actually pull the trigger.
The only person suggesting that Diaz was the shooter is Ralph Gajus, who occupied a nearby cell and says Diaz mimed the shooting using his hands. Gajus has recently admitted that he lied.
Nobody witnessed the shooting except the three defendants and Joseph Nagy, the man who died. Gajus' testimony -- and the account of Angel Toro, Diaz's co-defendant -- were the only things suggesting that Diaz fired the fatal shot. Yet, other evidence indicated that Toro was the triggerman. Toro is now serving a life sentence.
The Florida Supreme Court has given a Miami-Dade County judge until Sunday to determine whether Diaz's scheduled Dec. 13 execution should be stayed. It should be an easy call. The jury that heard -- and presumably believed -- Gajus' lies voted 8-4 for the death penalty. Without testimony that Diaz actually pulled the trigger, it seems likely that another jury would find that Diaz deserves the same sentence as his co-defendants, life in prison.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers and court officials should take a hard look at the problems inherent in jailhouse testimony and take steps to end it.