Thursday, February 7, 2019

Jailhouse Informants and Wrongful Convictions

Zhang Hui (right) and his uncle Zhang Gaoping (left) were acquitted in March 2013 after spending a decade in jail due to false testimony given by a jailhouse informant. Photo credit:

A controversial issue facing criminal justice reformers around the world is the use of jailhouse informant testimony, which has been discredited as being unreliable and a leading cause of wrongful convictions. Jailhouse informants are detained or incarcerated individuals tasked with obtaining inculpatory information about criminal suspects. Informants are often pressured into becoming informants in exchange for financial rewards and sentence reductions.

Authorities in China acknowledge the practice of using jailhouse informants to gather information for investigations. Detention centers receive funding from the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) to help deploy a network of informants. The MPS Working Rules of 1986 classify informants into two groups: one group collects intelligence about criminal suspects to maintain jailhouse security and the other group assists police in the investigation of difficult cases.

Prisoners with at least three months remaining on their terms typically serve their sentences in prisons, however an exemption is made for long-serving prisoners to be placed in detention centers where they can act as the prison guards’ watchful eyes and ears. While the exact figures are unknown, a study revealed that of the 480 detainees in Xinjiang’s Yining Detention Center in 1990, 14 were informants. In the early 2000s, Xinjiang’s Yopurga County Detention Center used a total of 18 informants – 14 security informants and 4 “special case” informants. A recent estimate indicated that three to five percent of the entire prison population in China are informants in detention centers.

There has been widespread public criticism over the use of jailhouse informant testimonies in cases resulting in wrongful convictions. Below are three examples of cases where informant testimony was used to push forward on investigations when evidence against the accused was weak or non-existent.

Yuan Lianfang - “The Jailhouse Snitch”

Ma Tingxin

Yuan Lianfang (袁连芳) is a former jailhouse informant known to have produced false testimonies leading to two wrongful conviction cases involving three victims. In February 2003, Yuan was transferred to the Hebei Detention Center to collect information for a homicide case, which the county public security bureau had pledged to solve within three months. Ma Tingxin (马廷新) was mistakenly identified as a criminal suspect after failing a polygraph test. Investigators were unable to find sufficient evidence to use against Ma and ended up coercing six witnesses into providing false testimony. It was later discovered that Yuan was assigned to be the informant responsible for extracting Ma’s confession.

In an interview, Yuan admitted that he would take any opportunity to complete his six-year sentence early. At the time of Ma’s detention, his wife and father had been taken into custody for investigation. Using his position as a “cellblock boss,” Yuan did not allow Ma to sleep if he failed to memorize the confession script Yuan had composed for him. Yuan later threatened the safety of Ma’s family, prompting Ma to write a five-page long statement in which he admitted to committing the murder. After Ma’s “confession,” Yuan was transferred back to Hangzhou’s Gongshu District Detention Center on April 8, and one month later, he earned a sentence reduction of 18 months.

In July 2004, Ma was acquitted in the trial of first instance, but the prosecution appealed the judgment insisting that evidence for conviction was sufficient. The appeal was not withdrawn until April 2008. Ma spent five years in a detention center for a crime he did not commit.

Two Zhangs

Yuan Lianfang’s name did not garner media attention until a case involving a rape and murder conviction overturned by the Zhejiang High People’s Court in March 2013 came to light. Zhang Hui (张辉) and his uncle Zhang Gaoping (张高平) were sentenced to death with reprieve and 15 years’ imprisonment, respectively, in the appellate trial in October 2004.

Initial investigations against the duo produced no substantive evidence of their guilt. The victim was last known to have hitchhiked by truck from Anhui to Hangzhou before her corpse was found in a ditch. The DNA found on the victim belonged to neither of the Zhangs, but to another individual who could not be identified by police at the time. As the investigation dragged on, Yuan was transferred to Gongshu District Detention Center where he collected testimony from Zhang Hui. Yuan alleged that Zhang Hui had voluntarily confessed to strangling the victim to death after raping her. Zhang did not appear in court to testify. As in Ma’s case, Yuan used his position as the “cellblock boss” to coerce Zhang into writing a confession letter. The court ignored accusations against Yuan and convicted the two Zhangs for rape and murder.

In the appellate trial, the Zhejiang High People’s Court held that the facts in the two Zhang’s case were “clearly established.” In the judgment, the court only mentioned in passing that Zhang Hui “is not a criminal who requires immediate execution due to the special circumstances of the case” without explaining what constituted the “special circumstances.” In the absence of admissible circumstantial evidence, their conviction was yet another violation of the presumption of innocence – a principle established in the Criminal Procedure Law.

Both Zhangs were released in 2013 after they had been in prison for almost a decade. While serving his sentence in a Xinjiang prison in March 2008, Zhang Hui read about Ma Tingxin’s acquittal in a newspaper and learned that Yuan had given false testimony leading to Ma’s wrongful conviction. The prosecution accepted Zhangs’ request to re-examine the admissibility of Yuan’s testimony. Yuan admitted to perjury in both Ma and Zhangs’ cases. It was later found that the DNA on the victim belonged to another criminal who had been executed. An interview with Yuan in 2013 revealed that he had suffered a stroke while in prison, leaving him with permanent health issues. At the time of the interview Yuan was living in a small rented apartment in Hangzhou with limited means and fearful for his safety due to the reputation he had garnered as a jailhouse informant.

Jailhouse Bullies

In May 2018, Caixin Media's coverage of the case of Wang Baiyu (王柏玉) brought much discredit to both law enforcement and jailhouse informants in China. Wang, a native in Jilin province, was sentenced to death with reprieve in 2004 after “confessing” to the murder of his fiancée. The investigation failed to uncover sufficient evidence that Wang was to blame for the murder and basic facts of the case were not disclosed to the defence, such as the victim’s time of death. Wang might have been able to provide a credible alibi had these details been disclosed. There was no witness testimony or forensic evidence linking Wang to the murder scene. The only evidence used to substantiate the conviction was Wang’s confession, which had been extracted by jailhouse informants.

Wang’s confession was full of inconsistencies. He gave three different accounts detailing how he committed the murder. It was later discovered that Wang’s confession was coerced in the detention center by investigating officers who also instructed several informants to inflict torture on Wang, including “banging Wang’s head against the wall, kicking him in his chest, suffocating him with plastic bags, depriving him of water, food, and sleep for consecutive days.” On May 31, 2002, Wang delivered his first written confession to his informants. In mid-August, the informants tortured Wang again, leaving him with a nasal fracture and bruises all over his body. Wang signed another fabricated confession statement. One of the informants received a sentence reduction of two years in January 2005 as a reward for his “meritorious service” in eliciting Wang’s confession.

In the appeal statement published in February 2017, Wang stated that at least four detainees witnessed the abuse and torture he suffered and that he knew of at least one other detainee, surnamed Song, who also fell victim to the same informants in June 2002. For the past 15 years, Wang has been lodging a post-conviction appeal. On August 26, 2016, the Jilin People’s Procuratorate refused to re-examine the admissibility of Wang’s testimony and determined that there were insufficient grounds to lodge an appeal. At the time of writing, Wang has 12 years left on his sentence.

Reform in United States

In the U.S., there is ongoing legislative debate concerning the use of jailhouse informant testimony. In response to Texas legislation that would end the use of incentivized jailhouse informants in death penalty cases, a Washington Post op-ed in May 2015 criticized that “[M]ost jailhouse snitches are lying. Informant testimony has become such a critical tool for prosecutors precisely because it allows them to put on testimony that is a) damning, b) easy to manufacture and c) allows b) to happen while giving them plausible deniability.” The Texas bill that was later passed in 2017 has been widely applauded. In California, Florida, Washington, New York, and Pennsylvania, legislatures have also sought to restrict the use of informant testimony. In November 2018, Illinois passed a bill making it mandatory for prosecutors to disclose their use of jailhouse informant testimony at least 30 days before trial. The bill gives defence attorneys time to examine informant testimony and forces prosecutors to prove that informant testimony is admissible and to disclose what rewards will be given to informants in exchange for testimony.

In China, reformers widely agree that the use of jailhouse informant testimony is problematic. Informants are deployed by police in detention centers administered by the Ministry of Public Security. Police play both a custodial role and an investigatory role and they routinely use informants to boost crime clearance rates for their own career advancement. In 2015, Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission Meng Jianzhu announced the removal of crime clearance rates as a performance indicator for police officers. The arbitrary power of police could be more easily restrained if the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) administered detention centers, since it has little direct interest in the outcome of criminal investigations.

Wrongful convictions reduce public confidence in the criminal justice system. The consequences are severe when miscarriages of justice result from the use of forced testimony obtained by torture. Legislative restrictions are needed to curb the arbitrary use of testimony. China can draw on the U.S. experience by improving transparency in how informant testimony is collected, and by restricting and banning its use in certain cases such as cases involving the death penalty.