It was the middle of July in 1994, outside an old strip club on Detroit’s West Side, when Lonnie Bell admitted to his friend Christopher Brooks that he had killed somebody.
The two young men, both drug dealers, had been friends for a year. Less than a week earlier, while Brooks was selling crack outside of a laundromat in the East Side, he happened to see Bell leaving a home where police later discovered the body of Willa B. Bias shot to death. Brooks casually mentioned what he’d seen as the two of them relaxed in the strip club. According to Brooks, Bell was mum at first, but then invited Brooks to blow lines of cocaine in his Ford Bronco. Inside the car, Bell confessed to the murder.
The informant was part of a ring of jailhouse informants – or “snitches” – that allegedly received lenient sentences.
He said he killed Bias because she was supposed to be dead, possibly for the $70,000 in drug money her foster son kept hidden in the basement. He also told Brooks that if he ever told anyone what he saw, he’d lay Brooks’ corpse next to the woman’s. Brooks was so shaken – Bell had a reputation as a cold, careful killer – that he soon decamped for Monroe, Michigan, fearing Bell would kill him if he stayed in Detroit. Brooks says he never told anybody about what he saw until 2013, the year he was contacted by an independent investigator reassessing the murder case. Brooks says he is coming forward now because he believes the wrong man is in prison for Bias’ death.
Today, Lonnie Bell is dead, a casualty of Detroit’s gang warfare. The man imprisoned for Bias’ murder is Lacino Hamilton, her foster son, who grew up in her home and was 19 years old when she was killed. Hamilton, now 40, has always maintained his innocence, and he says he loved his foster mother – whom he simply refers to as mom. Without a retrial, the earliest he can expect to be let out of prison is 2046, when he will be 71.
Hamilton’s murder conviction hinged on two pieces of evidence: a coerced statement, and testimony from a jailhouse informant claiming that Hamilton confessed to the murder while awaiting trial in his jail cell. But according to affidavits, courthouse transcripts, letters and internal memos obtained by Truthout, the informant – who is long deceased – may have received incentives from Detroit police to falsely testify against a number of individuals. These documents also suggest that the informant was part of a ring of jailhouse informants – or “snitches” – that allegedly received lenient sentences as well as food, drugs, sex and special privileges from detectives in the Detroit Police Department’s homicide division in return for making statements against dozens of prisoners eventually convicted of murder.
Jailhouse Informants “Lie Primarily in Exchange for Lenience”
A 2005 report published by the Northwestern University School of Law traced the first documented use of “snitch testimony” in the United States to 1819, when the state of Vermont convicted Jesse Boorn for murder based on testimony from his cellmate. The cellmate told a judge that Boorn confessed to the crime inside their jail cell while awaiting his trial. In exchange for testifying, the cellmate was freed after Boorn’s trial, and Boorn was sentenced to the gallows.
This basic reward system underpinning jailhouse informant testimony persists into the present day. It’s not difficult to imagine why a prisoner informant would lie about overhearing a confession if it means real material benefits.
Snitch testimony was paramount in 45.9 percent of 111 death row exonerations since the late 1970s.
“Informants lie primarily in exchange for lenience for their own crimes, although sometimes they lie for money,” according to a report from Golden Gate University Law Review. While informants are motivated to falsify testimony for material reward, prosecutors are often motivated to make those informants sound believable to a judge. Testimony from a single jailhouse informant is enough to convict a person for a charge as serious as murder, according to Valerie Newman, assistant defender in Michigan’s State Appellate Defender Office.
“You can be convicted on any credible evidence ruled as admissible,” she told Truthout. “If a judge rules it’s admissible and a jury believes it, you can be convicted. People find it hard to believe people can be sent to prison for the rest of their lives based on this kind of testimony.”
They can also be killed. The Northwestern report found that snitch testimony was paramount in 45.9 percent of 111 death row exonerations since the late 1970s, making it the leading cause of wrongful convictions in US capital cases. As DNA detection became more sophisticated in the late 1990s, waves of prisoners were exonerated, and some states began examining their use of jailhouse informants. The Innocence Project, a group that investigates innocence claims in decades-old cases, claims that in 15 percent of all wrongful conviction cases overturned by DNA testing, statements from people with incentives to testify were critical evidence used to convict a person.
These relatively recent revelations have moved some states to examine the use of jailhouse informant testimony. In a broad review of all state defendants wrongfully convicted of capital murder, the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment found that prosecution often “relied unduly on the uncorroborated testimony of a witness with something to gain,” including “in-custody informants,” and passed a law preventing death sentences if a conviction was based on “uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice or a jail-house snitch.” Similarly, California reopened 225 cases in 1989 after an informant blew the lid off the way Los Angeles prosecutors fed prewritten testimonies to informants, and the state later adopted a law requiring informant testimony be held to higher proof standards.
Whistleblower in the Homicide Division
While these higher standards can sometimes backfire, in places like Michigan, where there are no regulations for using informant testimony beyond prosecutors knowing and admitting to it, there has never been a serious investigation into the systematic use of jailhouse informants by police and prosecutors. Claudia Whitman, director of the National Death Row Assistance Network of CURE (NDRAN), believes some cases would be overturned following a serious re-examination.
“In the two cases [from Detroit] I have worked on in depth, jailhouse informants were major players in the state obtaining convictions,” she told Truthout, acknowledging that while using informant testimony is not illegal, it is known to be highly inaccurate.
Police routinely hid exculpatory evidence from prosecutors and judges.
On at least one occasion, the veneer of secrecy over the Detroit Police Department’s homicide division was punctured, giving a fleeting glimpse of systemic corruption. In 1997, Detroit native Dwight Carl Love was freed from a Michigan prison after 15 years. He wasn’t exonerated by DNA tests, but through the efforts of a tenacious defense attorney named Sarah Hunter with a whistleblower inside Detroit’s homicide unit. Based on a tip from the whistleblower, Hunter forced Detroit police to turn over evidence they’d hidden from trial that supported Love’s innocence. He was exonerated – as other men would be in later years – because of the police department’s failure to present exculpatory evidence to the court.
According to an affidavit from Hunter, the whistleblower, who allegedly committed suicide less than a year after meeting the attorney, told Hunter that police routinely hid exculpatory evidence from prosecutors and judges. In the years after Hunter obtained the Love evidence, she claimed to Claudia Whitman that Detroit police intimidated her by beating prisoners if they spoke to her. Neither she nor the police responded to Truthout’s request for comment.
Snitches on the Ninth Floor
Besides the attorney and the whistleblower, evidence of systemic corruption within Detroit’s homicide unit in the mid-1990s comes from alleged informants themselves. Their claims involve dozens of cases of men who are still in prisons across Michigan.
Before Jonathan Hewitt was sentenced to four years in prison in 1994, he says he spent months in a cell on the ninth floor of the Detroit Police Department waiting for his trial. While there, he claims, homicide detectives offered him and at least six other prisoners food and drink, conjugal visits, time to watch television and, most importantly, the promise of lenient sentences if they testified against other prisoners also being held in the jail cells on the ninth floor. Hewitt says police told informants that a deal for their reduced sentences would be hatched after the suspect’s trial, so that they would not have to acknowledge it in court, which could have swayed jurors’ away from a conviction.
Allen estimated that over 100 people who were convicted of murder were “set up” by Detroit police based on false testimony.
“The Detectives would provide me with the necessary information, but just they wanted me to try and convince a couple prisoners to tell me about their cases – murder [cases] only,” Hewitt wrote in an affidavit in 2011. In a phone interview with Truthout, he said detectives supplied him and other informants with prewritten statements to memorize before the preliminary hearings of the accused men. In those statements, informants would say that the accused person confessed to their crime in a way that “filled in” the details detectives were missing to connect the suspect to their crime. Often, Hewitt said, informants had familial or fraternal connections to the men they snitched on, indicating they were all scooped up from the same underclass milieu.
It’s hard to gauge how many cases from that time relied on informant testimony, and how critically. Hewitt estimated that between just two informants he personally knew, upwards of 30 men were convicted of murder in the mid-1990s. By another account, from Detroit Police Sgt. Dale Collins in the homicide division, a single informant helped police with at least 20 cases before July 1994.
In 2013, a defense attorney looking into a prisoner’s innocence claim hired a private attorney to interview another admitted snitch in 1994, Edward Allen. Allen told the investigator that police witnesses on the ninth floor of the Detroit Police Department were allowed visitors who brought food and drugs from outside, and claims he even had sex with one of the homicide detectives. He also reveals in a letter to a federal circuit judge that he spent two years imprisoned on the ninth floor, and hoped to extract a favorable plea deal for helping police with five different cases.
Allen estimated in another letter to Larry Smith, a man convicted largely because of Allen’s testimony, that over 100 people who were convicted of murder were “set up” by Detroit police based on false informant testimony. He also admitted to falsifying his testimony against Smith, who is still incarcerated. Allen, who is currently incarcerated, was released from prison in 2008 but sentenced to three years in 2012 after violating his probation.
Eventually, some of the defense attorneys for men incriminated by snitches approached the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office with concerns about certain informants. In February 1995, the deputy chief assistant prosecutor for Wayne County, Robert Agacinski, wrote to his supervisor expressing concern over the department’s use of informants. He noted that two detectives in the homicide department, Dale Collins and Bill Rice, had approached prosecutors to ask that they reduce a sentence for two informants, a request the district attorney turned down.
“I don’t know how to reconcile or accept this. I just don’t know how, so I don’t try.”
If an investigation had found that police were promising informants lenient sentences – which is outside of their authority – or working with prosecutors to fabricate informant’s testimony, it could have resulted in evidentiary hearings, jump-starting the process of overturning convictions. But Agacinski, who recently headed the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, says nothing was ever done to address the concerns he outlined.
“I was low-middle-ranking management. I wasn’t part of top level,” he told Truthout. “Nobody ever told me anything else and I have no idea if [the memo] was acted upon.”
One informant Agacinski mentioned by name in the memo was Lacino Hamilton’s snitch, Olivera Rico Cowen, a man living with AIDS. In July 1994, three weeks before Hamilton was arrested for his foster mother’s murder, Cowen was granted a radically reduced sentence for cooperating with homicide detectives. Instead of serving five to 15 years in prison, he would only have to do a year – as long as he continued to cooperate with homicide investigators.
But Cowen didn’t live that long. He spent the last months of his life on the ninth floor of the police department, loyally trying to coerce a confession out of Hamilton.
“Reading and Rebelling”
Lacino Hamilton rejects the legitimacy of the entire carceral system, and says his resistance to the system’s dictates has likely made his life harder in his current prison, the already violent Kinross Correctional Facility. Over the last 19 years, Hamilton frequently bounced around different prisons until ending up at Kinross, near the Canadian border.
“I don’t know how to reconcile or accept this. I just don’t know how, so I don’t try,” he told Truthout, adding that he spent much of his time “reading and rebelling.”
Even after nearly two decades of imprisonment, Hamilton rages against prisons, police and a whole social order founded on oppression.
“How some of us live is not a mistake; neither is it the product of a broken system,” he wrote in an essay from prison. “We live like that because it is profitable to a lot of people businesses: pawn shops, pay-day loan services, slum lords, creditors, social services, and others who traffic in misery.”
Homicide detectives and a prisoner conspired to pressure him into testifying against Hamilton.
These days, Hamilton has reason to feel optimistic. After writing to thousands of journalists, lawyers and colleges to plead his case, he finally got in touch with Claudia Whitman from the NDRAN, who supplied this reporter with most of the documents behind this story. Whitman also made contact with Christopher Brooks, the prisoner who says he knows who really killed Hamilton’s foster mother. With Whitman’s help, Hamilton was able to convince an up-and-coming attorney to work to overturn his conviction pro bono. Mary Chartier said her firm vetted the case before taking it on.
“If we think someone is wrongfully convicted, we really put the resources of the firm behind the client,” she told Truthout. “If we’re going to take on this case for free, it means we really believe in it.”
Hamilton was imprisoned with a man named Darnell Thompson, who claims he was threatened by police into pinning the crime on Hamilton. In an affidavit reviewed by Truthout, Thompson said that homicide detectives and prisoner Olivera Rico Cowen conspired to pressure him into testifying against Hamilton. Thompson, who was 18 at the time, says he was coerced into signing a statement against Hamilton, but he later refused to testify against Hamilton in court. But Thompson’s statement, as well as Cowen’s testimony and testimony about Hamilton’s character by a neighbor, were enough for a jury to convict Hamilton to a maximum of 80 years in prison.
Chartier says Cowen’s testimony was a critical reason for the conviction, even though he was also instrumental in six other murder convictions, according to court documents.
Patterns and Practices
Documents pertinent to Hamilton’s case also suggest there may be many more prisoners in Michigan convicted because of the Detroit Police Department’s jailhouse informants. They include Larry Smith, the man to whom informant Edward Allen admitted falsifying testimony in a 2002 letter.
Like Hamilton, Smith wrote to lawyers and journalists for years before somebody responded. When he was 18, he claims he was detained for murder without an attorney, which he says allowed police to fabricate a statement by him. Allen later corroborated that fabricated statement at Smith’s trial. Smith’s current attorney, Mary Owens, says they are wading through the appeals process now.
“In many cases, even if all the witnesses have recanted, or if a person claims innocence, it’s still difficult to [overturn a conviction],” she told Truthout. “The courts are more concerned with whether the trial has been procedurally proper.”
When the snitch ring on the ninth floor was busiest, Detroit police were casting a wide net over neighborhoods.
But in recent years, as challenges to US police as an institution have risen in the media and the streets, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has more publicly scrutinized police across the country, most memorably in Ferguson. Ron Scott, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, is hopeful that the old snitch cases in Detroit could be reviewed by the DOJ, given its recent investigations.
“If we could find those patterns and practices, [the DOJ] would be willing to use it as a template for looking at the department and the way it infuses this behavior,” he said, adding that he and a federal monitor had met with prisoners from Detroit with “questionable convictions.”
Yet even if federal investigators do get involved, legal sources tell Truthout any lawsuit that follows would likely only affect future policies and practices, not grant relief for currently incarcerated people alleging past harm.
Backdrop of Corruption
Federal intervention in Detroit police affairs would not be new; in fact, the police have been under a federal “consent decree,” which is the DOJ’s official method of addressing civil rights abuses by law enforcement. Police under a consent decree are audited every quarter by a court-appointed monitor to assess their progress on reforms. Detroit’s decree was put into effect after the Detroit Free Press exposed that Detroit police had the highest number of fatal shootings by police in the United States.
Despite the pretense of oversight, in 2008, the FBI uncovered a romantic affair between the federal monitor and the city’s now-imprisoned mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick. The monitor and her team were replaced in 2009 by the current monitor, Robert Warshaw. The city will exit the decree in 2016.
In addition to the affair scandal, evidence of corruption in the homicide department emerged in 2008. An audit by Michigan State Police into the DPD’s crime lab revealed that police made assumptions about “the entirety of all items [in a case] based on the analysis of only a few,” likely resulting in erroneous convictions. The lab’s closure led to yet another scandal three years later: The Detroit Free Press discovered that the lab, and all the evidence in it, including sealed evidence bags, ballistic tests and investigative reports, had simply been abandoned and left open to anybody who wanted to go inside. Evidence was allowed to degrade, touching hundreds of cases.
Lacino Hamilton was part of a generation that grew up in the so-called “crack era,” and before going to prison, he sold drugs in order to build a life for himself in a dying city. As in Congress and major cities across the country, Detroit’s answer to the social fallout of drugs and poverty was more aggressive policing and sentencing. It fell on homicide detectives in the lockup craze of the mid-1990s to funnel Black youth from the streets into the prison system.
Around the time when the snitch ring on the ninth floor was busiest, Detroit police were casting a wide net over entire neighborhoods that bore the worst effects of divestment and disrepair. This is, in fact, how Hamilton describes his arrest: He wasn’t singled out after his foster mother’s murder, but picked up alongside many other young Black men after she was killed. He was originally picked up for questioning in an unrelated case, before detectives allegedly pinned the murder on him when they couldn’t pin it on another suspect.
Hamilton says the reason his original defense attorney did not challenge the prosecutor’s use of an informant corresponds to some of the reasons Black communities around the nation still suffer at the hands of the state: neglect and an assumption of disposability.
“By now, the demonstrative wasting away of Black life in urban areas, such as Detroit, has become an historical and social fact, called neglect,” he wrote in an email to Truthout. “I mean what else can it be? Society places little to no value on Black lives. And what people don’t value, they don’t bother with … I’m in prison because no one wondered, cared, or took the time to ask how a handful of serial offenders [snitches] could show up in court again and again to have received unsolicited confessions – neglect.”