They lie. They cheat. They can be manipulative and devious double-crossers. Many of them are robbers, rapists, kidnapers, even killers.
They are, in the words of a well-known veteran prosecutor, "outright conscienceless sociopaths to whom truth is a wholly meaningless concept."
They may be universally despised, yet they are frequently the best thing going in the government's war on crime.
They are snitches, or informants, who provide crucial testimony to help prosecutors put others behind bars--usually getting lenient treatment, perhaps even money, as a quid pro quo.
Were it not for them, there undoubtedly would be fewer convicted felons behind bars. Prosecutors, in short, cannot live without them in many cases.
But defense lawyers say the age-old but murky practice of using informants to help the state prosecute criminals raises the specter of innocent people being framed.
"There are just so many reasons for informants to lie," said John Irwin, an author and professor of sociology at San Francisco State University, who has studied the role of informants in criminal prosecutions.
The practice of using informants has always been controversial. But it is coming under new debate in light of a recent incident in Los Angeles, where a County Jail inmate demonstrated for authorities that he could obtain inside information about a crime to concoct a "confession" that could be used against the suspect in that crime.
That demonstration, by Leslie V. White, has touched off an unprecedented review by the office of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner of all murder prosecutions in the last 10 years in which an informant provided key testimony. In the interim, Reiner has also ordered top-level reviews of all requests by the county's 800 prosecutors to use an informant.
To many reform-minded critics, the renewed debate is long overdue--and all the more so because, some say, the practice seems to be escalating sharply.
"There's no question about it," criminal defense lawyer and Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz said. "Informing has become, if not an honorable trade, a mass occupation."
"It's a terrible problem and it's really gotten out of hand," added Rebecca Campbell, executive director of the defense-oriented California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
Informants are being used "promiscuously to obtain information about the most trivial and the most serious of crimes," Dershowitz said. "They manufacture crime in order to sell their product. They lie about crime in order to give their employers what they think he wants to hear."
In Los Angeles, Reiner said, the number of criminal prosecutions in which jailhouse informants are used is "infinitesimally small." But, he added, "that doesn't mean that it is insignificant. It comes up in some important, serious cases."
To be sure, not all informants are shady characters. As Dershowitz acknowledged in a telephone interview:
"Informants serve a good purpose, too, like when a good organization is trying to monitor the Klan or the Nazis. And the civil rights movement was helped enormously by the use of informants during the 1960s."
The problem, however, is that the use of informants remains "a very unregulated and lawless area of the law," Dershowitz contended.
Ill-defined? Perhaps. Lawless? No, says Gary Mullins, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn.
"I don't know that there should be a hard and fast policy. My guess is that there's a general community of understanding out there among the prosecutors," Mullins said. "The use of informants is one of the areas governed by experience, and that's not necessarily a bad thing."
Strict Standards Wanted
Dershowitz said there should be specific guidelines and standards to govern the use of informants. To simply allow prosecutors to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to use an informant is insufficient, he said.
"Such decisions must be made "on a rule-by-rule basis. Case by case is just a way of prosecutors saying, 'Leave us alone,' " he said.
Prosecutors concede that informants generally make less-than-ideal witnesses. Stephen S. Trott, a former senior Los Angeles County prosecutor and more recently associate attorney general of the United States, has called snitches "the scum of the Earth."
Trott, widely regarded as a national expert on the use of informants, declined to be interviewed for this story, citing his current job as a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judge. But he did not object to having his numerous speeches and papers on the topic quoted. To use an informant is to wade into a "watery and treacherous domain," he said. The practice, Trott added, is "an endeavor loaded with unmarked pitfalls for the unwary."
Defense lawyers could not agree more.