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Cops Are Recruiting Young Informants in the Drug War -- and Risking Their Lives

When low-level drug offenders become informants in exchange for leniency, lack of protections can make for fatal results.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a remarkable investigation into law enforcement’s unregulated use of young confidential informants in drug cases. On Monday,  New Yorker staff writer Sarah Stillman won a George Polk Award for her eight-month investigation on the topic. Her  article is called "The Throwaways," and it’s spurred calls for reform in several states, including, most recently, Washington state, where new legislation regulating the use of drug informants in underway.

In her article, Stillman describes how police broker deals with young, untrained informants to perform high-risk operations with few legal protections in exchange for leniency. The results can be fatal. One such informant, Detroit teenager Shelley Hilliard, was murdered after being caught by police with less than an ounce of marijuana and agreeing to set up her drug dealer in order to avoid prosecution. This is Shelley’s mother, Lyniece Nelson.

LYNIECE NELSON: It’s like they just threw her away. They didn’t even care, because—it’s just the way she said it to me, the way her tone. She was like, "Mama, I’m scared. What do I do?" I said, "You’ve got to protect yourself," because I knew they didn’t care about her. They wouldn’t—she could have went to jail for that ounce, but she said, "They made me sign my name. They made me be an informant." I was like, "So where’s the police now?" She said, "They’re gone." They made her do that, and they left her in the room.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Lyniece Nelson, the mother of a teenage informant who was murdered when trying to set up her drug dealer in order to avoid prosecution for less than an ounce of marijuana possession. By some estimates, up to 80 percent of all drug cases in America involve such informants.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Journalist Sarah Stillman writes about another confidential informant, Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old Florida State student who had just earned admissions to a master’s program in mental health counseling when cops found drugs in her apartment. To get off the hook, she agreed to assist the cops in a major undercover deal involving meeting two convicted felons alone in her car to buy two-and-a-half ounces of cocaine, 15,000 ecstasy pills and a semi-automatic handgun. Within days, Rachel Hoffman’s body was found shot five times in the chest and head with the gun that the police had sent her to buy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Rachel’s mother, joining us from the Tampa studios, PBS studios of WEDU.

If you could tell us, Margie Weiss, what happened to your daughter. Go back to 2007.

MARGIE WEISS: 2008 is when she was murdered. And in 2007, she—just before she graduated FSU, and she also had a major in criminal justice as well as psychology—they stopped her because she had been driving eight miles over the speed limit. She went to FSU, Florida State University. And they arrested her because they found 25 grams of pot, which is less than an ounce. And the law is if you have over 20 grams, I believe, it’s a felony. And she went into drug court. And she was to graduate in April, and—of 2008. But when she graduated and was ready to come home in August, her lawyer told her—told us—he called us two days before she was supposed to move home—that she had to stay in Tallahassee to get her—to be able to get her record expunged, which is what we wanted, because she was going to go on for her master’s degree in counseling and be a—and work towards becoming a psychologist and work with kids.

And that never got to happen, because they raided her apartment, and apparently she was getting pot for her and her friends. And they found five ounces, which is less than what this cup would hold. And we, her father and I, were unaware of any of this going on. And when they raided her apartment, the officer said, "We can make all this go away if you work for us." And she said, "OK," because she did not want to shame her family.

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