The Cost of Snitching | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

June 30, 2010 News » Cover Story

The Cost of Snitching 

Rat Trap: The reward for telling secrets can be a long stretch in jail.

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In late March 2008, two Salt Lake County Jail inmates plotted a murder. One inmate would eventually ask the other, “Rich,” to kill an entire family upon his impending release. On May 10, 2009, Rich wrote a letter detailing the plot to Lohra Miller, the county’s district attorney.

According to court documents, Patty Ishmael, an investigator with the Utah Attorney General’s office, interviewed the 38-year-old Puerto Rican native. Rich told her he would cooperate with the investigation his letter had triggered and testify in court. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

He agreed to carry a small device shaped like an electronic car key in his sock to record his conversations with his cellmate, Dennis Lingmann. At that time, Lingmann was facing 10 charges of exploitation of a minor, two counts of stalking and four counts of unlawful sex with a minor. Rich, who had spent 10 years of his adult life in East Coast prisons prior to arriving in Utah in May 2008, was in jail awaiting trial on charges of drug distribution and receiving stolen property, to which he would soon plead guilty in exchange for a one-year jail sentence.

Rich is on probation for 32 more months and currently faces an arrest warrant for failing to comply with probation. In light of Rich’s potential return to jail and the threat of harm that inmates who snitch can face, City Weekly decided to refer to him as “Rich,” a pseudonym. Rich turned Lingmann in because, he would later tell 3rd District Court Judge Randall Skanchy, “I was raped many times when I was little.” In Rich’s eyes, Lingmann was “a monster.”

Lingmann offered Rich $16,000 to break into a family’s home and shoot Lingmann’s sex-abuse victim and her mother with a 9mm Glock that her father kept in his truck. “If I’m going to do 20 or 30 years in prison, might as well [kill her],” Lingmann told Rich. Later, he expanded his murderous contract to all seven members of the family.

On Sept. 9, 2009, after Rich had made the recordings, assistant attorney general Paul Amann filed six first-degree felony charges of criminal solicitation to commit aggravated murder against Lingmann.

Rich sought nothing. “I never asked for no freedom,” he told Skanchy. Instead, his unsolicited reward turned out to be further incarceration for himself.

After he finished his yearlong sentence in Tooele County Jail, he was released Nov. 7, 2009 into the twilight world of homelessness and the search for menial labor, the shadow of his criminal past never far away. When Rich failed to turn up three weeks later to the Nov. 31 preliminary hearing on Lingmann’s solicitation charges, as he had promised the authorities he would do, Amann requested a material-witness warrant from the court. He and Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Robert Parrish, co-counsel for the Lingmann solicitation prosecution, needed to put Rich’s testimony on record and allow Lingmann’s lawyer the opportunity to cross-examine him. While Lingmann sought to change his attorney, the state kept Rich incarcerated for five months to ensure they had access to his testimony before finally deposing him and casting him back onto Salt Lake City’s streets. The district attorney’s office referred comment on Rich to the state attorney general, whose spokesman, Paul Murphy, declined to address it.

A judge-authorized material-witness warrant allows prosecutors to arrest and incarcerate for an indefinite period of time a key witness believed to be a flight risk or unwilling to testify. Such witnesses generally receive neither legal counsel nor compensation for their lost time. The district courts, according to Utah Courts spokeswoman Nancy Volmer, do not keep a record of material-witness warrants or how long these witnesses are jailed for. In response to a GRAMA request, the office of the Salt Lake County District Attorney revealed that, in 2008 and 2009, it requested at least 13 material-witness warrants for victims and witnesses of cases ranging from domestic violence to sex abuse of a minor to gang-related crime.

In contrast, Salt Lake City Prosecutor Sim Gill says his office had issued zero material witness warrants in the same period. “They need to be used judiciously and carefully,” he says. “Whenever you are depriving someone of their liberty, you have to have a compelling interest to do so.” He describes it as an “unproductive tool, where you can end up having more victims.”

Controversy over use of this potent prosecutorial tool is nothing new. Two years ago, the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office came under fire for using a material-witness warrant to lock up for seven days 23-year-old Ashley Godnick, a domestic-violence victim who refused to testify against her partner. Rich and Godnick’s stories underscore the collateral damage prosecutions can leave in their wake.

That damage extends even to the very notion of justice in Utah, if a motion by Amann, the man chiefly responsible for Rich’s lengthy jailing, is anything to go by. Under pressure because Rich no longer wanted to cooperate with the prosecution, on March 12 Amann filed a motion to put Rich’s testimony on record, noting, apparently without irony, that Rich’s “ongoing detention effectively darkens the reputation of our justice system.”

Part of that reputation-darkening, argue some criminal defense attorneys, comes from Utah’s prosecutorial culture valuing convictions more than justice. They allege that some of Miller’s prosecutors are using the threat of material-witness warrants to intimidate reluctant witnesses into testifying. Defense attorney Clayton Simms says the public should pay attention to how the state uses these warrants. “In America, you shouldn’t end up in jail for not committing a crime, but that’s not always the case.”

Justice At All Costs
Alicia Cook, who worked under Miller’s predecessor, David Yocom, and now heads up Miller’s elder-abuse prosecution team, says that before Lohra Miller was elected Salt Lake County District Attorney in 2006, domestic violence was “not effectively handled. If the victim wanted the case dismissed or didn’t appear in court, we let the case go. We did not fight for them.” That made life easy for defense attorneys, she adds.

Miller introduced a new approach to prosecution of domestic-violence-related crimes by dedicating six attorneys to domestic violence, each of whom, according to Miller, has between 125 and 175 ongoing cases.

Her commitment stems from a 1994 killing of a domestic-violence victim by her husband, who Miller had days before served with a subpoena. Her prosecutors emphasize that behind every domestic-violence situation lurks the possibility of a future homicide.

With domestic-violence prosecution, “you’re fighting a losing battle,” says felony domestic-violence prosecutor Yelena Ayrapetova. “You have so much working against you. There’s a lot of biases to overcome, skeptical juries, a victim who doesn’t want you to go forward,” not to mention the muddy mire of emotional situations where the truth can be all but impossible to find. Miller’s approach was to make early contact with victims. “You get a wealth of information obtained at that point,” Ayrapetova says. “The early intervention is the key to reducing recidivism.”

Miller says in her first year, the district attorney’s 70 percent dismissal rate for domestic violence went to a 70 percent conviction rate, a controversial figure among Miller’s critics that includes pleas in abeyance.

While Miller says it’s very rare for her office to seek material-witness warrants, defense lawyers complain they are often held over the heads of recanting domestic-violence victims to coerce them not only to testify, but also stick to their original complaint.

“I fear [the district attorney’s office is] mainly looking at the win column and only at the win column,” says Kent Hart, an assistant federal defender and executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “They should be measuring success on whether justice has been done, not the number of cases they’re winning in court.”

In the past 12 months, “we are seeing more material-witness warrants and [prosecutors] trying to influence testimony,” Hart says. The threat by prosecutors of locking up recalcitrant victims in jail for several months “seems to be a growing problem,” he says. “The risk for the prosecutor is that they are potentially suborning perjury if getting people to not recant. That’s not justice.”

Part of the problem, particularly with emotionally volatile domestic-violence cases, he says, is that prosecutors may well be deciding at the beginning “that someone is a victim of domestic violence and that’s clouding [the prosecutor’s] judgment.” He cites Miller’s chief domestic-violence prosecutor, Michaela Andruzzi, telling attendees at a Provo seminar, “90 percent of [domestic violence] victims recant.” Hart takes issue both with the percentage and why they are recanting. “Are they having second thoughts, did they lie the first time round, or are they under pressure now?”

Andruzzi, in turn, finds Hart’s views equally foggy. She says defense attorneys often forget that the police assess collaborating evidence in a complaint before forwarding it for screening. “We’re ethically bound not to proceed if we think a victim has lied,” she says.

Prosecuting domestic violence is a double-edged sword, she says. “You go forward with a case in spite of the victim’s wishes, and you are told you are not considering the victim. You dismiss the case, the victim gets hurt, and you’re told you’re not doing your job.” She wants victims in court, if only to ensure they are not being pressured to stay away. “I don’t know if a victim is at home chained to an engine block,” she says.

Miller adamantly refutes allegations that her prosecutors threaten victims with material-witness warrants. “We don’t threaten to hold them in jail until they say what we want.”

Shackled Victims
While a conviction is a laudable goal, Salt Lake public defender Patrick Corum says, “There has got to be some interim steps before we lock [victims] up because they are reluctant to testify.”

That’s a situation he was confronted with two years ago, when he walked into a 3rd District courtroom and encountered “one of the worst things I’ve seen in court.” Ashley Godnick, a mother of two, was in tears, in a jumpsuit, handcuffed at a counsel table, begging to be let out of jail, while her alleged abuser, then-28-year-old Lonial Milline, watched in court. The juxtaposition between sobbing victim and the observing perpetrator, Corum says, “struck me as very sad. She clearly didn’t want to testify, and they made the decision to lock her up.”

According to the probable-cause statement, Godnick told police on May 14, 2008, that Milline grabbed her by the hair, threw a glass at her, held a knife to her leg, which Godnick denies, took away her phone and punched her in the face. Six days later, Godnick described the incident in a letter to the judge as “a small argument” that “was exaggerated a little bit” by both her and the police. “I just want this behind us so we can move on,” she wrote.

Andruzzi saw it differently. She feared that Milline’s violence was escalating. If prosecutors give victims the right to decide whether a case proceeded or not, “isn’t that putting a target on her back? I prefer to take the target myself.”

Godnick says Andruzzi “pestered” her to testify on the phone at her job at a doctor’s office. Andruzzi felt Godnick needed to testify at the preliminary hearing, “given [her partner’s] history,” which included several previous domestic-violence-related charges, one involving Godnick.

Two officers showed up at Godnick’s work with a $100,000 arrest warrant at 9:30 a.m. on July 3, 2009. After four days of jail food, jump suits, cell bars and intimidation by fellow inmates, she was transported in shackles and handcuffs to a holding cell in court. Andruzzi came to see her and told her she would be released only after she testified or Milline pleaded guilty. Andruzzi meant it as a statement of circumstances, she says. Godnick saw it as a threat.

Milline’s lawyer, however, did not show up at court. The judge sent Godnick back to jail for two more days. Milline pleaded guilty, Godnick says, “so I didn’t have to be in jail.” He received a suspended year sentence and counseling.

Andruzzi met with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, who informed her of their concerns about victims being re-victimized by the county’s use of material-witness warrants. After that meeting, she pursued a different tack, issuing what she calls “9-to-5 warrants,” where an investigator picks up a witness in the morning and escorts them to court. Recent examples, according to defense attorneys, involve an officer escorting a mother from her child’s hospital bed to court and a warrant being sought for a juvenile alleged to be a sex-abuse victim. Other than Godnick, Andruzzi says she’s approved six warrants by her staff in the last two years, of which one resulted in a brief incarceration.

Sim Gill says Godnick’s incarceration sent “a chilling effect” to those who think of turning in abusive partners. “They call out for help in a moment of crisis […] and the prosecutor reaffirms to that abuse victim, ‘You have no power, I have all the power.’ ”

Godnick, meanwhile, called the police on Milline, in a separate domestic-violence incident on Oct. 23, 2009, which led to three misdemeanor charges being filed against him.

“Nobody’s here for me.”
Jail, Corum says, “is a bad place. It’s demeaning, traumatizing. That someone who is a victim of a crime is jailed seems to me horrendous.” The same might also be said for a seemingly good Samaritan whose one selfless act lands him behind bars.

Rich was released on Nov. 7, 2009, without work or a home to go to. He promised the authorities he would attend the preliminary hearing on Lingmann’s murder-solicitation charges, but did not turn up. Amann requested and was granted a material-witness warrant. On Dec. 6, cops found Rich sheltering from a viciously cold wind behind a Dumpster.

At first, he was grateful for warmth and food, even if it was Salt Lake County Jail, where he had been a snitch six months before. “I was supposed to be kept out of Salt Lake,” he said, during the first of four visits City Weekly paid to the jail during Rich’s last five months there.

He was told, he said, that he would testify Feb. 8, 2010, and then be released. But as the months dragged on with no end in sight to his incarceration, Rich became increasingly frustrated. “I’m putting two hands out there to help everybody, and there’s nobody here for me.”

Rich has “been a disciplinary problem every time he has been in—significantly more than average,” says Unified Police Department Lt. Mike DeNiro, Salt Lake County Jail spokesman. His five-month material-witness warrant stretch was no different. He accrued four verbal warnings and six written violations, the latter resulting not only in the loss of privileges, such as access to the library, but also in being moved from minimum security to medium, where he was in lock-down 23 hours a day with a cell mate.

Rich alleges a corrections officer had been harassing him, including assigning a strange inmate with long nails and hepatitis to his cell. “[The guards] are hanging me little by little,” he said. “I can’t take it anymore.”

By late March, Rich’s anguish was more than apparent. “I can’t believe they are doing this to me,” he said, his eyes rimmed black with exhaustion.

When he threatened, he said, to put his head through the cuff board used to secure inmates’ hands when dinner is passed into their cells, he was moved to administrative segregation in Supermax 3. Now Rich was in a locked-down cell alone and only allowed out for one two-hour period every 48 hours, when he could shower, go to a multi-purpose room and the recreation yard. Those two hours, except for showering, he was shackled and manacled.

“You earn your way there,” DeNiro says. “You land there because you’re being a problem.”

Without access to legal counsel, Rich said, “I can’t get my anger off my chest, I can’t vent nothing.” In court in March, prosecutors raised the subject of representation for Rich, but he said he never met his court-appointed counsel until the day he was released.

Rich told a police officer that he had had enough and would refuse to testify. Shortly after, Amann filed a motion to have Rich’s testimony put on record. He wrote that Rich was “essentially being punished for his positive action in bringing to light allegations against Dennis Lingmann. The unusual circumstances of this case are patently inequitable to Rich, who has sought nothing more than justice in coming forward.”

Those inequities left Rich feeling “abused. Send me to prison, whatever you want. It can’t be worse than this [jail],” he complained in April. “I’m human. I’ve got feelings, and I suffer, too.”

In mid-April, Parrish, Amann and Detective Jason Jones visited Rich in jail. When they questioned his negative attitude, his reply, he recalled, was succinct. “I do something good, look what happened to me.” The three men pressed Rich that they needed him to testify. If he faked amnesia, he said they told him they would prosecute him.

Eventually, he agreed. “I’m doing it for [Lingmann’s victims],” he said.

“I didn’t want to be a victim”

At a recent seminar, Hart noted, “Our instincts about overreaching by prosecutors are legitimate.” He asked the 60 defense lawyers in the room, “Is there coercion [by prosecutors] going on?” Many, Hart says, nodded their heads.

Miller finds such accusations irksome. “It’s clear [prosecutors] are expected to seek justice [not convictions]. I’m not going to apologize for being a tough prosecutorial office.”

Domestic-violence victim Alecia Belt wants more than apologies. She wants 3rd District Court Judge Royal Hansen to declare a mistrial before Aug. 16, when he sentences her partner, Charles Williams, after he was convicted of one count of assault and two counts of domestic violence on June 16, 2010.

Belt is the mother of four children, three of whom, she says, are Williams’. In a notary-witnessed statement given to Hansen’s court on June 21, Belt accused Salt Lake County domestic violence prosecutor Jaclyn Crawmer of forcing her to lie to the jury.

In her statement, Belt claims Crawmer and a witness assistant manhandled her twice into court, when she “dropped to my knees,” and told them she couldn’t testify against Williams because her partner had done nothing wrong. Her original May 2009 statement to police that he had kicked her and threatened her life was a lie, born out of “hatred,” she wrote in her notarized statement, at the way he had treated her that day.

Belt claimed in her statement that Crawmer threatened to arrest her if Belt didn’t “read my statement verbatim to the jury,” and later directed her on the stand through head movements “when I wasn’t saying the correct thing.” Belt admitted in her statement to lying to the jury. Crawmer, Belt says, “wasn’t out to protect my rights, it was all about her victory.”

Crawmer categorically denies Belt’s accusations. “Domestic-violence cases are hard, but ethical duties take priority. I didn’t threaten her.” She admits she is “totally blindsided,” by the attack from someone she believed supportive of the prosecution and empowered by it. Belt, whom she describes as “quiet and timid” when she first met her, while afraid of her partner, “came in [to court] very forthright, very willing to talk.” The day after the trial, Crawmer says Belt called her, frightened enough by a threatening Facebook message allegedly from Williams to file a police report. Then on Friday, June 17, three days before she swore out her statement, Crawmer says Belt was suspended from her administrative position at a local hospital after an external allegation, potentially in retaliation for her testimony, was made that she had violated Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations.

“I feel bad for her,” Crawmer says. “She’s desperate.”

As Belt’s 6- and 7-year-old boys play and her 10-month-old blond twins crawl around her chair in their small apartment, Belt insists she told Crawmer from the beginning Williams had done nothing wrong. “I didn’t want to be a victim. But she said she would do what it takes to convict him.”

A Beast Inside
On April 30, almost five months after he was arrested on a material-witness warrant, Rich put his testimony on the record for the preliminary hearing in 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City.

A few hours later, he emerged from the jail into the sunlight, clutching a stained white duffel coat, a plastic bag with his hat and ID. His only other possessions were the clothes on his back—nylon pants and a T-shirt.

He stood on the top of the ramp, closed his eyes for a second and breathed. “It’s over,” he said. Then, he remembered he would have to testify again at trial. “No, it’s not.”

One thing he knew for sure, he said. “I won’t ever [snitch] again.”

That night, Rich hoped for a bed at the Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City, but shelter employees told him they were full. He had to call them every day for seven days, and at the end of the week a bed should be available.

As night drew in, the temperature fell quickly. Rich stood around the back of The Gateway at 9 p.m., clutching a bottle of water and a small bag of food.

“I’ll sleep under the bridge,” he said. It was better than being under the thumb of corrections guards. “You get treated like a beast inside and treated like nothing on the out.”

He walked away slowly into the neon-lit night, his gait stiff, almost ponderous, like an astronaut taking his first steps on a brave new world.

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