By Andrew Cohen
The Marshall Project
The online age has brought new dangers to government informants and their families. Now suspicious co-defendants, or friends of those who believe they have been sent to prison with evidence supplied by a “cooperator,” can, with a bit of Googling, access information in case files that may reveal what deals have been made with prosecutors and blessed by trial judges. This information, which a decade ago could only be obtained by laborious hands-on research, has caused growing concern for the safety of informants and the ability of prosecutors to strike plea deals for cooperation.
Between the spring of 2012 and the spring of 2015, federal judges reported at least 571 instances of “harms or threats” to government cooperators, according to a new survey commissioned by the Federal Judicial Center, the research and education agency of the federal judicial system. There surely are more, unreported instances of violence as well. During that time, the FJC reports, at least 31 informants were murdered, in and out of prison, by people who obtained information about their plea deals from unsealed court documents or transcripts of court proceedings.
More common are violent acts designed to intimidate informants and their families. “The home he and his family resided in was shot up the day before he was scheduled to testify,” one FJC respondent noted. “[They] burned his house down,” responded another judge. Also common are online or other verbal threats to informants. “Name posted on Top Snitches Facebook page,” one judge told the FJC. “Told family members to put his name on rats.com,” another judge reported. Sometimes, the response is more traditional: “Flyers posted in his neighborhood that he cooperated,” one judge reported.
Picture: Carsten Frenzl from Obernburg, Deutschland (faceless) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons