By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
A criminal defence lawyer has accused two key witnesses in a Melbourne murder trial of fabricating evidence against his client in order to get their slice of a $1 million reward.
31-year old Christopher Lavery is on trial for the murder of his former friend, 24-year old James Russouw, at Burwood East Reserve in March 2008.
Mr Russouw was found deceased in a torched Jeep with a knife protruding from his neck. His car had been doused in petrol and set on fire, impeding the collection of forensic evidence.
Until the reward was offered, the first informant – known only as ‘Witness A’ – told police he was watching “the new Rambo movie” with Lavery at the time of Mr Rossouw’s death – providing Lavery with an alibi.
Money changes everything
But after hearing of the incentive, Witness A gave a fresh statement to the effect that Lavery had asked him to swap clothes and then disappeared 10 minutes into the movie, adding that Lavery later destroyed the clothing and gave him a wad of cash.
Lavery’s lawyer has told the Supreme Court of Victoria that his client is evidently being set up by the informant, whose evidence is unreliable given the timing of his fresh statement.
The lawyer says another man – identified as ‘Witness B’ – has also lied to get “… a slice of the pie, a rich reward”.
That man came reportedly forward only after the reward was offered, alleging Lavery had confessed to him about the murder.
The trial continues.
Cash for testimony
There, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) regularly offers multi-million dollar rewards in exchange for assistance in the ‘War on Drugs’.
In one case, the DEA committed to pay an informant the equivalent of a million dollars per year for 30 years, in exchange for ongoing assistance against a major drug cartel.
Bill Piper, a senior director of the Drug Policy Alliance, points out the obvious – that “[p]aying informants creates incentives to lie or fabricate evidence.”
Barry J Pollack, the President of the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers, is also resolutely against what effectively amounts to cash for testimony.
“If a defendant paid a fact witness, he would be charged with committing obstruction of justice, a federal felony,” Pollack explains.
“The credibility of paid informants is always suspect. If the DEA and other law enforcement agencies insist on relying on such questionable testimony, its use should be rare and the payments well documented and fully disclosed.”
A report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General was highly critical of the practice of paying informants, finding serious problems in the DEA’s assessment of the credibility of informants and their claims.
The report was also critical of the fact the DEA was unable to provide it with a list of payments made to informants, finding the entire process to be arbitrary and lacking in oversight.
Use of informants in Australia
The practice of paying informants became less common in the wake of the 1995-97 Wood Royal Commission, which found it led to corrupt police practices.
ARC Centre for Excellence in Policing and Security director Simon Bronitt has expressed the view that:
“Any material provided by an informer… [should] never be used in court as evidence — only as intelligence to stimulate further police inquiries”.
The biggest danger, of course, is that the evidence of a convincing yet untruthful informant will be accepted by a jury despite judicial warnings about it potential unreliability.
Notwithstanding the risks, Australian police have gradually restored the practice of rewards for information, and steadily developed a criminal informant network.
Incentives for NSW informants
The NSW Police Force currently has nearly 100 listings on its website offering rewards of $50,000 to $1,000,000.
Most of these relate to missing persons and serious criminal activity, including unsolved homicides.
The biggest rewards are for the return of William Tyrell ($1 million) and information leading to a conviction for the murder of Michelle Bright ($500,000).
Crime Stoppers offers smaller rewards for information relating to less-serious offences.
So it seems the practice of paying cash for testimony is here to stay, for the short term at least.