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Monday, March 5, 2007

'Snitch Evidence' Under Fire

More cases involving informants overturned

by Paul Egan
The Detroit News
February 20, 2007

DETROIT -- When David Eddleman was convicted of murder in the 1996 shooting death of 16-year-old Joane Gergescu on Detroit's west side, the jury based its decision largely upon the testimony of a cellmate who claimed to have heard him confess.

But a federal appeals panel found that Eddleman's cellmate had plenty of reason to lie.

Eddleman, who will be freed this month or granted a new trial in the case, is joining a growing number of defendants whose convictions are being overturned because of "snitch testimony" by jailhouse informants, a practice under increasing scrutiny in Michigan and across the nation.

It's also the subject of author John Grisham's first work of nonfiction. Grisham's bestseller "The Innocent Man" examines the case of Ron Williamson, who was convicted of murdering a cocktail waitress and sentenced to death largely on the testimony of snitches and convicts. DNA evidence later exonerated Williamson.

A 2005 study by the Northwestern University School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions found that of 111 death row inmates exonerated since the 1970s, 46 percent of the convictions had relied on snitch testimony.

Beyond Eddleman's case, Michigan lawyers are alarmed by the recent revelations related to alleged abuse of confidential informant testimony by indicted former federal prosecutor Richard Convertino.

"In a perfect world, I wouldn't allow jailhouse informants," said Detroit defense attorney Mark Kriger.

Cases examined

Lawyers are examining Convertino's cases following his 2006 indictment on charges of misconduct in prosecuting the nation's first terrorism trial after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The star witness in the terrorism case, Youssef Hmimssa, was exposed as a serial con artist. In one of Convertino's drug cases under review, federal court records show the prosecutor arranged a secret early release for Hans Thomas, a violent convict who had admitted to participating in murders and shooting into a home with children inside.

Thomas was released pursuant to a sealed order in return for his testimony against an accused drug trafficker.

Thomas was charged with a new murder within a year.

Sentence reduced

In return for cooperation in the same drug case, Convertino arranged a sharp sentence reduction for convict Tali Alexander, who had admitted to shooting at Washtenaw County Sheriff's deputies; then Convertino arranged for

Alexander to share a cell with another defendant in the terrorism case, Karim Koubriti, lawyer Carole Stanyar alleged in a court filing.

"Taking full advantage of this golden opportunity," Alexander reported that Koubriti admitted to him he was a terrorist, according to the court brief.

A terrorism-related conviction against Koubriti was later dismissed.

Convertino has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, obstruction of justice and other charges and awaits trial in July.

His lawyer, William Sullivan, would not comment on Stanyar's allegations but said Convertino "always acted zealously to protect the safety of his community, and his ethics are unimpeachable."

Kenneth Wyniemko, a Rochester Hills man who spent nine years in prison before DNA evidence cleared him of a rape he did not commit, said he will never forget his former cellmate testifying at his trial.

'It was too concise'

"It was almost like his testimony was memorized," Wyniemko said last week. "It was too concise. It matched almost word for word the (police) reports."

Glen McCormick testified Wyniemko confessed to him in the Macomb County Jail. Facing a possible life sentence as a habitual offender, McCormick got less than a year for attempted armed robbery in return for his cooperation.

He later recanted.

"Judges have to have the courage to ban that type of testimony altogether," Wyniemko said. But Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, who prosecuted the Eddleman case and many more murder cases when he worked in the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, said jailhouse informants often provide crucial information.

"When people get locked up together they get bored and they just spill their guts," Cox said.

Cox said prosecutors must use common sense and evaluate the testimony of jailhouse informants in the context of other facts in the case and corroborating evidence.

Defense lawyer Kriger said jailhouse informants provide among the most unreliable types of evidence prosecutors can use.

"Jailhouse informants have the greatest motive to fabricate and are likely to fabricate in order to extricate themselves from their own difficulties," Kriger said.

U.S. Attorney Stephen Murphy draws a distinction between the classic jailhouse informant who claims to have heard a confession and others who may have been offered deals in return for their testimony.

"Point blank, the only way that we can convict the most serious of criminals is to use the testimony of other criminals," Murphy said. "(But) we need to be even more cautious."