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Roberto “Conchie” Harris, so-called Secret Witness C during David Tamihere’s trial, at his sentencing for perjury in 2017. Photo/NZ Herald

Jailhouse snitches a blight on NZ's justice system

For years, police and prosecutors have used the most repellent and unreliable informants to help convict people. Prison witnesses – criminals who claim a cellmate confessed to a crime – bolster weak police cases and gain rewards in return. Mike White investigates the shadowy world of jailhouse snitches and asks why New Zealand is doing virtually nothing to control this threat to our justice system. 

They are murderers. They are child rapists. They have butchered their children and stabbed their partners. They are drug dealers, kidnappers and armed robbers. Nearly all of them have been convicted of fraud and dishonesty. Some have been found guilty of perjury.

Yet these people have all been allowed to give crucial evidence in New Zealand courts, frequently in high-profile trials. They claim a fellow prisoner confessed to them, admitting serious crimes in a moment of intimacy or bravado. And now, the prisoner who’s heard this remarkable confession feels compelled to tell police about it. Because it’s the right thing to do, they say. Because they were sickened by what they heard. Because they want to help the victim’s family.

Bullshit, say an increasing number of jurisdictions around the world. Bullshit, say academics who’ve studied these witnesses. Bullshit, say politicians, commissioners and fellow criminals: these prison informants are almost always liars, inventing damning stories to get rewards from the authorities.  

But still they appear in our courts, their claims cloaked in credibility by the police and prosecutors who procure and produce them, their names hidden, their confident testimony persuading juries who have little understanding of how prison works.

Welcome to the world of snitches. Let’s meet some of them.

From left: Murder victims Amber Lundy, Ben Smart & Olivia Hope, and Heidi Paakkonen.

The case of Scott Watson, convicted of double murder.

Witness A claimed Watson whispered a confession through his cell door peephole. A year after Watson’s trial he recanted his evidence, then flipped again, saying it was true.

Witness B met Watson while on remand for beating his partner unconscious and stabbing her so hard in the back the knife’s handle broke off. When he offered evidence about Watson confessing, he was released on bail, given a car and phone, and ultimately sentenced to just nine months in prison for the attack and drug offences, but served only three months.

The case of Stephen Hudson, convicted of murder.

As in Watson’s case there was no body, no witnesses and no weapon. So police went searching for snitches. Detectives approached 300 criminals and dangled a $50,000 reward in front of them as well as providing information about the case. Unsurprisingly, eight prisoners claimed Hudson confessed to them about the murder. One was proven to be lying because he was never in the same unit as Hudson. The others, who all have name suppression, gave varying stories of how and where Hudson committed the murder. Some of them rank among New Zealand’s most infamous and awful murderers.

The case of Teina Pora, twice convicted of murder, but later exonerated.

A witness, who claimed Pora confessed, had serious convictions for violence and dishonesty, but was given a $150 loan by a senior policeman and a letter from police to the court when sentenced for violence charges. The judge who reviewed Pora’s case said there was “good reason to doubt both the integrity and reliability” of the witness.

Read more: How justice for Susan Burdett took 27 years | New Zealand's most famous unsolved murders | Freedom Fighter: Tim McKinnel 

Mark Lundy. Witness X, who had more than 30 dishonesty convictions, claimed Lundy blurted out a confession minutes after the pair met, as they prepared to play a game of cards. Photo/Getty

The case of Mark Lundy, convicted of double murder.

Witness X, who had more than 30 dishonesty convictions, claimed Lundy blurted out a confession minutes after the pair first met. Years later, he tried to use this supposed information to bargain with a judge to get bail.

The case of David Tamihere, convicted of double murder.

Three jailhouse witnesses claimed Tamihere confessed to murdering Swedish tourists Urban Höglin and Heidi Paakkonen. Witness A was a well-known snitch who had given evidence in other trials. Witness C, Roberto “Conchie” Harris, was a double murderer who shot a couple and left their bodies for the woman’s children to find when they returned from school, then forged a letter to the Parole Board claiming he had established a trust for the children, in an effort to be released early.

Five years later, Harris retracted his claims, saying police offered $100,000 and early parole for implicating Tamihere. In 2017 and back in jail for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl, Harris was found guilty of perjury for the evidence he gave against Tamihere and sentenced to more than eight years jail. By this stage it had been revealed Harris also offered to give snitch evidence in another high-profile case.

Read more: David Bain, Mark Lundy et al: Are some cases too challenging for juries? | Paremoremo Prison: An inmate's view from the inside 

David Tamihere during his trial in December 1990. Prison witnesses claimed Tamihere confessed to dumping Urban Höglin’s body at sea and giving Höglin’s watch to his son. When Höglin’s body was found months later, he was buried on land 70km from where police suggested the murders happened, and still had his watch. Photo/NZ Herald
When David Tamihere was arrested, he knew the cops would come up with snitches claiming he’d confessed in prison. “The biggest question was, how many?”

Police tried hard – they even approached one of Tamihere’s brothers and offered a reward if he said Tamihere had confessed.

But Tamihere knew he was finished when “Witness A” appeared in court. “It didn’t matter what you were going to say after that. It was that horrific and detailed, it was all over. We actually had to stop the trial for a while when he gave his story, because one of the jury members got physically sick.”

Conchie Harris claimed the same things, adding that Tamihere admitted sexually molesting the couple before killing them. But Tamihere says Harris was known in prison as being so untrustworthy, nobody would have ever confided in him. “Not in a million years. If he said good morning to me, I’d look outside before I answered, just to make sure it was morning.”

Tamihere, who spent 20 years in prison for the murders he has always denied, says whenever police lack evidence they come up with jailhouse snitches claiming an accused confessed.

“It’s just mind-boggling to say, here’s a guy they don’t know from a bar of soap, but suddenly they want to pour their heart out to him.”

Related article: Three killings, no justice: 'He hadn't even started living'

Arthur Taylor has spent much of his life in prison and become a highly skilled “bush lawyer”. His private prosecution led to the conviction for perjury of jailhouse snitch Conchie Harris. Photo/Mike White
Ironically, it wasn’t police who prosecuted Harris for perjury – it was a fellow prisoner and a justice campaigner. Arthur Taylor has spent much of his life in prison for crimes, including armed robbery. Inside, he became a highly skilled “bush lawyer”, and joined Mike Kalaugher, a retired accountant who investigates possible wrongful conviction cases, to indict Harris.

Taylor had previously been accused of a crime by a snitch, and on two occasions a detective asked Taylor to testify that another prisoner had confessed to a grisly murder. “He made it clear to me my life would be a hell of a lot easier if I co-operated with police. It would have been tempting, but hell no, I was made of sterner stuff.” (The suspected prisoner was subsequently cleared of the murder by DNA.)

Taylor stresses prisoners claiming they heard cellmate confessions only existed because they knew they would be rewarded. “Absolutely! Remember the sort of people we’re dealing with – they’re not in prison for being good citizens. Not one of them ever does it out of public spirit. They’re not the same as your witness walking down the street – they’re a completely different category. And they’re very convincing – the unreal becomes real, it’s Alice in Wonderland.”

Taylor was in prison with Harris and says the reason Harris snitched in Tamihere’s case was because he was in trouble with fellow prisoners and had already been attacked. “He was desperate to get out of [Paremoremo]. It was a matter of life and death to the lunatic halfwit.”

Taylor points out Tamihere was kept in prison because he refused to admit to the murders at parole hearings. “But he freely admits it to Conchie Harris, known as the biggest bullshit artist in B Block?”

Juries believed prison informants were being incredibly courageous, because they faced retribution in prison for narking, and why would they lie if they were risking their life? “But they’re not risking anything. They’re put in segregation and hidden away. They’re protected by the prison authorities.”

Taylor, now out of prison, says the snitch trade is a dirty secret police had permitted for decades. “Imagine if one of them was in the dock and a jailhouse snitch was testifying against them – you can be sure they’d be screaming and jumping about it.”

He believed prison informants should only be used in rare cases where their testimony was corroborated. “Like, ‘John told me the gun was buried in such and such a place,’ and you go and dig there and the gun’s there. But we can’t have it go on like it is. The police and prosecutors are supposed to be striving for justice. How the hell do they think they’re going to get that? It’s just an absolute stain on our justice system. As soon as one of them walks in the courtroom door, Lady Justice goes sauntering out the back door.”

This Hokio Beach property was burnt down in what the police believed was a deliberate act in an attempt to hide evidence about Palmiro MacDonald. Photo/NZ Police
Many were left questioning where justice was at a recent trial in Palmerston North, where two men were on trial for murdering Palmiro MacDonald.

Four jailhouse witnesses were produced by police. Two gave evidence that was contradicted by other witnesses. One of them claimed he overheard a confession, but this was shown to be impossible because the witness was never in the same prison location as the defendant at the time alleged. In their haste to provide damning evidence, it seems police hadn’t even checked this most basic fact. Instead, it was defence lawyers who exposed the witness’s lie, leading to the judge telling the jury this evidence was plainly wrong and must be ignored.

It was later revealed police had spent $23,000 relocating and putting this informant in the witness protection programme when he offered information.

A third witness, Scott Marshall, was meant to give evidence about hearing a supposed confession, but refused and in farcical scenes, told the court his police statement was fiction.

“There’s two parts of it that are true – my name and that I was in prison. Half of it was made up by police and the other half was made up by myself… I’m not giving any more evidence. I’m not swearing the oath. Go and catch the real killers, rather than having a prosecution based on lies.”

The fourth prison informant, Leslie Ross, had spent over 30 years in prison for crimes including kidnapping and rape. After telling police one of the defendants had confessed to him, Ross was arguably treated leniently on charges he was facing. But at the last minute, he also refused to testify.

As well as these four, police and the Crown attempted to introduce three other informants, including one prisoner who had a conviction for perverting the course of justice. Charged with serious offences, this informant was facing a sentence of nearly five years in jail. When he offered evidence about a confession in the MacDonald murder, police provided a letter of support to the judge, and the informant’s sentence was halved. However, he demanded anonymity, meaning not even the defendants or their lawyers would know his identity, and when this was declined by the trial judge, he chose not to testify. Two other informants also sought anonymity if they were to appear in court, but when this was refused, they didn’t co-operate further.

Peter Coles. Photo/Mike White

Peter Coles, lawyer for one of the accused, said the trial (which ended in a hung jury) was a “train wreck” and the worst example of jailhouse snitch use – “because their stories just didn’t stack up and the benefits offered to them were so obvious that it was just unreliable.”

It wasn’t the first case Coles had been involved in where police produced prison witnesses whose evidence was proven at trial to be false.

“But the police don’t want to check. They have a witness who says, this is the truth. The police and Crown say, ‘Well, that fits our jigsaw perfectly – why would we want to shoot our own witness in the foot?’ It’s an indication of a corruption, in its literal sense, of a process we’ve seen time and time again, where the police and some prosecutors are prepared to go ahead with evidence without a proper check.”

Coles says using career offenders like Leslie Ross, whose criminal record spans 27 pages, should surely have set alarm bells ringing. “Because he knows there’s no consequence for him if he’s caught in a lie. Prison holds no fear for him, but he knows how to work it to his advantage. We’re perpetuating this industry in prisons of false evidence. And it’s time the court or the legislators had the balls to simply say, ‘No, this evidence has become so patently unreliable that it will only be called if it’s been thoroughly checked and independently corroborated.’”

Officials are beginning to recognise there is a problem. Crown Law, which oversees prosecutions, has for the first time drafted specific guidelines for using what they call “inmate admissions witnesses”. (These have been withheld from North & South, with Crown Law also refusing to say who it has consulted.) But Deputy Solicitor-General Brendan Horsley says prosecutors already consider the credibility of any witnesses and won’t use them if their evidence is deemed unreliable.

While accepting prison witnesses have been linked to wrongful convictions, and there is understandable public concern about their evidence, Horsley stresses prisoners do make incriminating statements to fellow inmates.

Auckland University associate professor Scott Optican says Crown Law’s guidelines for using prison witnesses are “a step in the right direction. But is it enough? The answer is no – it can’t be. Because it doesn’t really help the courts decide when it should be admitted and how we should vet it.”

Optican argues it would be better if the whole issue was reviewed in a more public process with wider input. “I mean, I wonder what defence lawyers and other people would say about their guidelines. At some point, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone says, really, this is a matter for Parliament. Because it probably is.”

The Auckland District Court. Photo/Getty
In the Supreme Court in October, Robert Lithgow QC shouldered his robes, stared at their threadbare patches, and mused whether they would last till his retirement.

But a few minutes later, thoughts of an easier life were set aside as he told the court’s five judges our justice system had been corrupted by encouraging and using prison informants. Lithgow was representing David Roigard, convicted of murdering his son, Aaron, despite the case being entirely circumstantial: no body, witnesses, weapon, or forensics – but two jailhouse snitches, whose names are suppressed.

Witness W had over 100 convictions, more than 60 for dishonesty. Witness F had more than 150 convictions including 130 involving dishonesty, and others for extremely violent offences.

Witness F told police he wanted “a deal” on serious charges he was facing, in return for testifying Roigard confessed to him in prison. Subsequently, his sentence was cut from a starting point of four years eight months in jail, to just two years. Witness W also got a reduced sentence for giving evidence.

With late morning sun slipping through the skylight in the extravagant, ovoid dome that is our country’s highest court, Lithgow was in no mood for euphemism. These informants were “bought and paid for” – witnesses who made stuff up and were rewarded for it. The Crown gave them credibility by letting them testify, implicitly signalling they were trustworthy battlers, “looking like they’re going to their first communion”. In reality, Lithgow said, snitches were conmen, paid fraudsters who sought benefits for unverifiable evidence. And the greatest reward was spending “less time locked up in a cage”, whether that was by reduced sentences for their own crimes, or early parole. Lithgow said time was the “crypto-currency” traded among prisoners, police, prosecutors and the courts, and by giving prisoners smaller sentences as reward for snitching, judges were complicit in something “so obviously wrong” it risked their impartiality.

“The courts are running the court and the gift shop as well.”

Instead, Lithgow suggested giving prison informants no inducement or reward at all, “and then see if he performs”.

What exacerbated the unfairness of the situation was that defence lawyers could never offer such deals. In Roigard’s case, a prisoner approached Lithgow and said if the lawyer put money into his prison account, he would testify that Witness F had admitted lying about Roigard’s confession.

Lithgow saw no way that he could honestly use such evidence, so took the offer no further. However, police and prosecutors continued to do deals with these prisoners, with Lithgow insisting “this nonsense has got to stop”.

The case is the second the Supreme Court has heard this year regarding jailhouse witnesses, as concerns deepen about their use. In August, the court heard applications over whether numerous informants should be allowed to testify in an upcoming murder trial. While all details are suppressed, one of the defence lawyers in this case, Christopher Stevenson, says, generally, prison informants only come forward because they can get something more valuable than even money – their liberty. “And that’s why the process has been described as legalised bribery.”

Stevenson, who has appeared in numerous cases where snitches have been used, says if he offered anything to witnesses who might help exonerate his clients, “I’d be promptly before the Law Society, with some saying that’s an attempt to pervert the course of justice – effectively paying witnesses to give evidence helpful to your case. I believe the whole jailhouse informant reward system taints the integrity of the criminal justice system.”

Overseas evidence suggests jailhouse witness statements were the most unreliable evidence in courts and one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, Stevenson says.  “So now we know all these things, I think the time has come to really draw a line in the sand and put a stop to this sort of evidence.

“It beggars belief that nothing has happened in New Zealand, and I’m dismayed that, given what we know, New Zealand is so far behind the rest of the world in reforming the use of this inherently dangerous evidence.”

Lawyer Christopher Stevenson is calling on Justice Minister Andrew Little to take strong action on the use of prison snitches. Photo/Mike White
Stevenson’s dismay may continue for some time, however. While the Supreme Court is considering the issue, its firm position until now has been that it’s okay for jailhouse witnesses to give evidence as long as judges give juries adequate warnings about them.

“Effectively, our system lets the prosecution use paid criminals to give evidence and leaves it up to the jury to work out if they’re telling the truth or not,” says Stevenson.

Stevenson has called on Justice Minister Andrew Little to follow overseas examples and strongly control the use of snitches. Little admits these witnesses tend to be “abject liars”, “notoriously unreliable”, are rewarded for their evidence, and appear when the Crown case is weak. “I think this type of evidence is highly suspect from the outset.”

But strangely, despite this, Little seems unwilling to act, happy to accept Ministry of Justice advice the problem isn’t big enough or bad enough to warrant legislation. But given nobody keeps records of how often prison informants are used, or what rewards are offered, it seems extraordinary bureaucrats and Little feel comfortable the issue isn’t significant. And given Little’s own concerns and the numerous templates used overseas to deal with snitches, Little’s claims that any legislation would be complex, seem dubious.

Stevenson says there’s a clear reluctance to admit what’s going on and deal with it. Police and prosecutors like using snitches because they are almost always available, he says, despite the ethical quagmire officials wade into when using proven liars. Even when a snitch’s evidence is found to be lies, Stevenson says, police never charge them with perjury, as that undermines their judgment in using the snitch in the first place, and risks deterring other informants.

Stevenson says Little has been bold and imaginative in other areas of criminal justice reform and his reluctance to limit the use of jailhouse informants is perplexing. “It’s an easy fix. Legislate that this evidence is presumed unreliable and inadmissible, unless it’s proven  otherwise – that’s what legislators around the world have done.”

A Cop-out?

North & South requested an interview with a police spokesperson regarding their use of prison witnesses. On 30 September, Detective Inspector John Mackie, who heads the police’s informant unit, agreed to an interview. But on 16 October, Mackie reneged on that commitment and said he would only answer written questions. When challenged on this, Mackie forwarded a four-paragraph statement on prison witnesses, which he said he had prepared. It was, however, identical to the statement provided to Stuff on July 24, attributed to Iain Chapman, police’s acting national manager of criminal investigations.

The statement did not answer any of North & South’s questions. It provided no meaningful information, other than stating all prison witnesses are vetted by a senior CIB manager. However, the statement didn’t explain how, if this was the case, patently false evidence from such witnesses has been presented in trials, such as in the Palmiro MacDonald case, and why these witnesses haven’t been charged with perjury.

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.