'JUMPING ON A CASE'
A serial informant testified in six murder cases. Then, he recanted. He and other cooperators said police applied pressure and promises to secure testimony, whether it was true or not.
Rasheem Hall was handcuffed in a holding cell wedged behind a Philadelphia courtroom, awaiting trial for murder, when he heard someone call from another cell, “Yo! ‘Sheem!”
It was Deric “Luke” Williams, a young man Hall knew from childhood, whom prosecutors had brought in from state prison.
Williams was there to testify against Hall regarding the murder of Ronald “Hat” Kennel, 54, a bystander in a 2007 North Philadelphia shootout. Williams was the linchpin of the DA’s case: the only person to sign a statement saying he’d seen Hall fire a gun.
Now, according to Hall, Williams promised to let the prosecutor know his old friend was innocent. “He said, ‘Sheem. I’m real sorry man. They had me.’ At the time, I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
In fact, Williams was a serial informant who had implicated at least six defendants in the killings of eight people. Williams alleged that each of the six men had confessed to a homicide or brazenly committed the act in front of him, or later showed him the murder weapon.
When Williams signed those statements, he would later testify, he was barely out of his teens, being treated for mental health issues, and either incarcerated or under threat of significant prison time. Later, in some of the cases, he recanted. Then, in some, he recanted the recantations.
He hardly fits the pop-culture trope of the jailhouse informant: the charming con man who knows how to think fast, spin a yarn, and game the system by obtaining (or claiming to obtain) confessions.
Yet, Williams’ story exemplifies a snitch system endemic to the investigation of homicides in Philadelphia and across the country — a system lawmakers and the courts have allowed to operate without clear rules or oversight.
“The heart of the informant problem is that we permit our criminal system to pay for cooperation,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. Those incentives include leniency, reward money or even the ability to evade charges in serious criminal cases. “We are running a market, a deregulated market in which the exchange of benefits such as leniency for cooperation is almost entirely unregulated and permitted.”
Informants may be opportunistic players in that market — “jumping on a case,” as it’s called in jailhouse parlance, for personal gain. Some have, quite literally, gotten away with murder. Some said they got access to sex and drugs while incarcerated. Others received tens of thousands of dollars in reward money from a fund some informants have admitted to defrauding in collusion with a now-convicted homicide detective.
But Natapoff noted that the market also tends to exploit vulnerable people — minors, undocumented immigrants, people in addiction or with mental health disorders. As a result, she said, it produces highly unreliable testimony. It almost inevitably generates serial cooperators.
Informant testimony is a leading cause of wrongful convictions. It factored in about one in five wrongful convictions, researchers have found, and 46% of death row exonerations. Settlements in those cases have cost U.S. taxpayers nationwide close to $300 million in restitution.
Police describe informants as an essential investigative tool, as long as their statements can be corroborated. Frank Dembeck, a retired Philadelphia homicide detective, said he used informants to help take down criminals from mass murderer Kaboni Savage to Junior Black Mafia boss Aaron Jones.
“There aren’t that many serial informants that I know of,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that do it — but they do it maybe once or twice trying to get out from under [a sentence].” Nine out of 10 times, he said, police “find out they’re lying” and don’t use them.
Yet, since 2018 at least 15 Philadelphia men were exonerated in murder cases involving incarcerated informants, court records show.
The Inquirer also identified eight people who each cooperated in four or more murder investigations in Philadelphia, then later recanted or were at least partially discredited because their testimony conflicted with other evidence. Such recantations are often viewed dimly by the courts, given the potential for threats or even payoffs on both sides.
“The American criminal system is famously poor at assessing the credibility of compensated criminal witnesses,” Natapoff said.
Five repeat snitches who spoke on the record with The Inquirer said that, pressured by police to sign statements, they had little choice but to comply — whether the statements were true or false. They admitted they sought personal gain, but also said they believed that if they didn’t cooperate they, too, could be charged with crimes they did not commit.
But others stood by their testimony. Clarence Milton, who in 2010 agreed to testify against six people in exchange for 25 years or more off a federal sentence, said it’s no surprise those he implicated say he lied. “It’s just part of the game,” he said. At the same time, Milton also confessed to a murder he’d committed a decade earlier, and was sentenced to just 11½ to 23 months in jail.
“Do I lose sleep? No. Do I stress about it now? Do I really give a f— about it? No,” he said. “The truth is the truth, and it is what it is.”
The Philadelphia Police Department has no formal process for tracking the use of cooperators, the incentives they receive, or instances when they provide demonstrably false information, Chief Inspector Frank Vanore said. Neither does the District Attorney’s Office, according to District Attorney Larry Krasner, who called it “a big problem, and a hard thing to fix.”
Vanore, who oversees investigations, said police do vet all information they receive. He said there is also now a “stringent” review process for fulfilling claims on reward money. Beyond that, he said, incentivized informants do not require particular scrutiny.
“Whether it’s from an informant source or someone out on the street, everything has to be corroborated,” he said. “Whether that means we conduct surveillance, we serve a search warrant to try to recover evidence, we look for video, we want to see if what they told us is true. … If we can’t corroborate it, we’re not going to be able to use it.”
Becoming a serial informant
Deric Williams’ background was, in some ways, conducive to a future as an informant.
He grew up in a tightly knit rowhouse community in North Philadelphia where neighbors knew one another or were related: cousins or half-brothers or grandmothers crammed into a few square blocks. The area was also impoverished and crime-ridden, its block parties and barbecues sometimes interrupted by gunfire from a hyperlocal gang war. By the time he entered adulthood, according to 2010 Census data, about one out of five neighborhood men was incarcerated.
Williams experienced the terrors and intimacies of that community firsthand.
At times, he shared a room with Fatih and Robert Anderson, with whom he had a half-sister in common. Robert Anderson remembers Williams as a teen — “short and chubby, with a beard.” Williams looked enough like one friend, David Satchell, that he’d loan Satchell his driver’s license. He particularly valued his friendship with Hall, who, Williams would later say, “looked out for me even when my own family didn’t.”
He was often in petty trouble as a teen, according to the Anderson brothers and Hall, all of whom also spent time in juvenile detention. He was known, they said, for his knack for stealing cars — and with another friend, Hanif Asim Saeed, stripping them of their rims and sound systems.
Williams, 34, who said he now works as an auto mechanic, denied that. But by age 19, court records show, he was already entangled in the legal system. He was arrested twice in 2007 for car thefts and sentenced to probation.
Around that same time, Williams was also becoming a valuable police asset, seemingly in the right place at the right time to provide information on homicide after homicide.
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First, on Jan. 12, 2008 — just three days into his probation sentence — Williams was the passenger in one of two cars speeding up North American Street.
Williams’ car, driven by his friend Jerrick Mariney, was stopped by police. The driver of the other car, Saeed, refused to stop — and moments later crashed into a third car. Three young men, members of a youth dance company, were killed: Esteban “Macho” Santiago, 19; Luis Figueroa III, 17; and Wilfredo Trevino, 18.
Police at first accused Mariney and Saeed of drag racing, Mariney said in an interview.
But neither Mariney nor Williams was arrested. Instead, Williams signed a statement in which he described himself and Mariney as blameless victims whom Saeed had tried to rob at gunpoint, then chased by car. That statement also cast Saeed’s offense not just as reckless homicide, but felony murder, which carries mandatory life without parole.
By the time of Saeed’s preliminary hearing, on April 1, 2008, Williams was incarcerated again — this time for an illegal gun, which was both a felony and a violation of his probation, triggering a detainer that would hold him in jail.
Three days after Williams testified, a judge lifted his probation detainer so he could post bail. The District Attorney’s Office also provided him $8,400 in rental assistance, hotel rooms, and financial aid, according to later testimony.
Saeed said he was shocked recently when he learned that Williams had gotten out of jail so quickly that April. “I remember them asking [Williams], ‘Are you getting anything from testifying?’” Saeed said in an interview. “And he said, ‘No, I just wanted to do the right thing.’ But he was lying.”
Saeed said he feels deep remorse for causing the fatal crash, but maintains there was no robbery. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison. That October, Williams also went to state prison, to serve 18 to 36 months for the illegal gun.
Although incarcerated, Williams would soon become a regular at the Philadelphia courthouse.
On Dec. 3, 2008, homicide detectives picked Williams up from state prison and brought him to the police Homicide Unit — on a tip, they said, that he had information on a murder. By the time he left, Williams had signed statements implicating at least four people in three more murders.
First, around 10 p.m., Williams signed a statement saying Michael Purvis shot and killed 19-year-old Samir Thomas in front of a bus full of people, then fled into Williams’ house to stash the murder weapon.
Fifteen hours after that, Williams signed another statement, saying he’d seen Fatih Anderson with a gun belonging to a murder victim, Donte Leak. Williams said he recognized the weapon because in fact he had sold it to Leak himself. Williams also said that later, when the two of them were in prison together, Anderson confessed to the killing.
After five more hours in the Homicide Unit, Williams implicated boyhood friends Rasheem Hall and David Satchell in the fatal shooting of Ronald “Hat” Kennel.
Some time after that, Williams signed another statement, accusing a neighborhood man, Keenan Weatherspoon, of killing Williams’ cousin Edward Coaxum.
Based on those statements, Williams was called to testify again and again — first from state prison, and later on parole or probation for subsequent criminal convictions.
He was an unpredictable prosecution witness. Sometimes he stuck by his statements; other times he recanted or professed not to remember them. Pennsylvania is among the minority of states that allows inconsistent statements to be introduced as substantive evidence — which meant the jury could consider Williams’ prior statement even when he recanted.
At Satchell’s 2009 trial, he testified that he saw Satchell firing a gun and that Hall had a gun as well. Then, on cross-examination, he said he saw Satchell draw his weapon but not shoot. At Hall’s trial a year later, he said Hall was not even on the scene. He said a detective had fabricated his earlier statement.
In Weatherspoon’s trial, he described being high on Xanax and marijuana when he gave a statement.
At Purvis’ preliminary hearing, he testified that an unnamed person had written him a letter in prison, telling him what to say to detectives. At trial, he said he suffered memory loss due to a car crash. He said he did not remember the crime, or even the preliminary hearing.
“He was nonchalant about it, making it like everything was a game,” Purvis said in an interview. “You denied living with your mom. You denied knowing [your girlfriend]. One statement you can read. Another statement you can’t read. One statement, you graduated high school. Another, you only went to 10th grade.”
In a recent interview, Williams said he did not recall Weatherspoon’s case, or testifying regarding Saeed’s role in the car crash. He said his statements against Hall, Satchell, Anderson, and Purvis were fabricated by homicide detectives, through threats and relentless pressure.
“You can’t stop these detectives,” he said. He described being cold, hungry, exhausted, and scared, locked in a room in the Homicide Unit. “I been down there three days. At that point I just didn’t care. I just basically wanted to get the hell out of there, so I just went along with what they was saying, just to get out of there.”
Though Williams said none of the statements were true, he only feels remorseful about his statement against his boyhood friend, Hall. “Rasheem ain’t have nothing to do with it.”
As for the others, he said, “They got what they got. The other people did what they did, period.”
Early warning signs
Willing or not — truthful or not — Williams was part of a chain of serial informants in Philadelphia that stretches back decades. Throughout that history, police and prosecutors have been publicly on notice that some informants were producing false testimony.
Back in 1990, the Pennsylvania Superior Court tossed a man’s conviction after prosecutors conceded his confession had been elicited with access to “sexual rendezvous” while incarcerated. Today, cases linked to that “sex-for-lies” scheme are still being appealed, leading to one recent exoneration.
And in 1997, the closest thing Philadelphia had to a celebrity snitch, “The Monsignor” John Hall, was very publicly discredited after fabricating a murder confession by his own stepson. One man Hall testified against was exonerated in 2020 after decades on death row. The Philadelphia DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit is now reinvestigating Hall’s cases.
But in other cases, informants and defendants argue that police and prosecutors were well aware of the flaws in their testimony — or engineered it themselves.
One, James White, was 19 when he was arrested in 1989, and ended up pleading guilty and cooperating in the prosecutions of four men for six murders. Three were convicted. White said he lied after succumbing to threats by detectives and the prosecutor.
“Everything they did to me was done to shatter somebody that was already badly broken,” White said in a letter, describing more than a dozen interrogations, with and without a lawyer. He said his mental illness compounded the stress. “The voices in your head keep you in a constant state of panic and fear, and you’ll do anything to stop that pain.”
All three men he helped convict were later exonerated after prosecutors conceded misconduct in the cases, describing one case as “a house of cards … built on the unscrupulous behavior of several bad actors.”
David Desiderio, the prosecutor, called every aspect of White’s recantation “ridiculous,” and said there was no motive for detectives to fabricate statements in old cases that had been “completely off the radar.”
Desiderio also said he did not believe White’s claims of mental illness. “He was one of the smartest witnesses I’ve ever had.”
White continues to serve life without parole.
In other cases, serial cooperators said detectives and prosecutors offered deals too good to pass up.
One, Cornell Drummond, testified against at least five people in state and federal cases — and received, by his count, seven years off a federal drug and gun sentence. Drummond later said he lied in all of those cases. “We did whatever needed to be done to be free again,” he said.
Drummond was just 16 when he first cooperated: His cousin, Henry Snell, had been shot and killed, and detectives picked him up for questioning three times. The third time, according to Drummond, detectives caught him with an illegal gun. To avoid charges, he said, he agreed to sign a statement implicating Sean Harvey, who was convicted.
“They really did that man dirty,” Drummond said. “He didn’t have nothing to do with it.” (A second witness who testified against Harvey stands by his identification.)
Benjamin Lerner, now a retired judge, approved informant Clarence Milton’s deal of 11½ to 23 months for murder. He said such cases hinge on judgment calls: “You trust that the information the defendant is offering, which supposedly [police] checked out, will lead to convictions of people worse than him, who wouldn’t otherwise be convictable without his testimony.”
The problem, as DA Krasner sees it, arises when prosecutors or detectives cross the line — in that they fail to disclose incentives, use a serial jailhouse informant as a “confession vending machine,” or coerce cooperation.
Recently, his office cited such concerns in connection with the handling of the sole eyewitness to the fatal 1996 shooting of Robert Spearman. After the witness, Robert Willis, failed to cooperate, he was charged with an unrelated, 15-year-old murder.
Former homicide detective Ed Rocks said he was working the Spearman case when he noticed that the old case against Willis had “slipped through the cracks.” He said the fact that Willis was the sole witness to the Spearman slaying “had nothing to do with bringing him in.”
Even so, prosecutors offered Willis an extraordinary deal for testifying against a man named James Green in the Spearman case: eight years’ probation for the 15-year-old murder. Green was convicted of first-degree murder based on Willis’ testimony.
At a recent post-conviction hearing for Green, Willis claimed the prosecutor, Kenneth McDaniels, had told him before the trial to keep the probation-for-murder deal quiet: “He put his finger to his lips, and shook his head from left to right. He said, ‘You do want to come home, don’t you?’” McDaniels denied that, testifying that he was “shocked” when he later learned of Willis’ lenient sentence.
Both Willis and Green now say the shooting was self-defense, after Spearman shot first. Last month, a Philadelphia judge found the secret deal constituted “egregious” governmental interference, vacated Green’s conviction and allowed him to take a plea deal.
A few hours later, Green was home after 24 years in prison. He went with his wife, Jennifer, to pick up their kids from school — surprising his daughter as he swept her into a hug.
Taking in the spring afternoon in Philadelphia, Green said he blames the prosecutors, and the way that absolute immunity can incentivize them to cheat.
“They had [the witness] in a jam — that was obvious. The average person is going to do what he did.”
If corroboration is the key to reliable informant testimony, each of the five cases Williams testified in appeared to pass the test. He was never the sole witness. Instead, his testimony was part of a complex web of ever-changing statements by a cast of cooperators that included Williams’ own loved ones and other incentivized informants.
Williams’ mother gave a statement in the case against Michael Purvis, saying she was there when he fled into their house to hide a gun. Williams’ then-girlfriend also gave supporting statements in two cases Williams testified in, but she recanted at trial. “Deric and his mother put me in this,” she testified unhappily. (Neither responded to interview requests.)
Antwan Razor, who said he is Williams’ brother, said he believes that collusion was a pattern. He said his sister and mother told him Williams had asked them to lie.
“My mom told me that she wanted to help her son, just like she would help me if I needed her help,” he said in an affidavit. In an interview, Razor added, “He was probably trying to use them to get out of a situation. I guess if he lied on one of them, then he lied on other people’s stuff, too.”
Fatih Anderson said that, while jailed awaiting trial, he observed how detectives cultivated cooperators.
“I was down there [at the police Homicide Unit] at least six times, and I was questioned for God knows how long. There were no windows. There was no clock. The only reason I knew the day was changing was the outfits when they would come in,” Anderson said. “They do that to everybody. I seen them plenty of times pull people out that was around guys that had active cases and ask them, ‘Did you hear them talking about anything?’”
In Anderson’s prosecution, such statements provided the scaffolding for a case that had been lacking in eyewitness accounts or forensic evidence. Based on their interlocking statements, Anderson was charged with three 2007 murders committed over the span of several months.
Williams was not the first jailhouse informant on Anderson’s case. That was Michael Green, a recent parolee who had been arrested for identity theft and forgery when he gave statements that Anderson confessed to killing Steven Gates, 25; James McClain, 21; and Donte Leak, 20. Later, Green would receive a supportive letter to the Pennsylvania parole board from a homicide detective and $21,000 worth of financial assistance for his family. Attempts to interview him were not successful.
Over the next 10 months, three other men — either under arrest or in custody — then corroborated Green’s account.
A 15-year-old, Montrel Green (no relation to Michael), signed a confession and pleaded guilty to colluding with Anderson in the attack on McClain. In an interview, Montrel Green said detectives manipulated him to lie: “When they take you down there, as soon as you walk in, it’s like you’re guilty. … If you won’t say you did it, they got people who will say you did.”
Then, Gates’ cousin, Julius Roberts, arrested on drug-dealing charges, told police he saw Anderson kill Gates. (Roberts did not respond to interview requests.)
Finally, Deric Williams produced the missing puzzle piece with his statement that Anderson admitted to killing Leak.
In the end, Anderson was convicted of the three murders. Everyone else Williams testified against was convicted, too — except for Weatherspoon. Rasheem Hall was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. All maintain they are innocent.
In Satchell’s and Hall’s case, significant corroboration came from Williams’ aunt, Tracey Lester, who said in an interview that she now regrets her role in what she views as a tainted court proceeding. She said her statement about Satchell having a gun was accurate, but she doesn’t know if he fired it. She said she never saw Hall that day, but detectives “forced the issue.”
“It’s like they set these boys up,” Lester said. She had not known her nephew was the key eyewitness who saw them shooting. “That’s pretty much a lie to me,” she said.
It was not until 2019, Hall and Satchell said, that they finally learned of Williams’ history of cooperation. Hall recalled rushing to the prison law library to learn more. “I was like, ‘Now I see!’”
Since then, Hall, Satchell and Anderson all have received affidavits from Williams saying his statements were fabricated.
But in a recent interview, Williams recanted his recantations. He said he only signed one affidavit, for Hall. As for any other affidavit, he said, “It’s gotta be fake. I don’t remember signing that.”
‘Just scratching the surface’
States from Connecticut to Texas began requiring prosecutors to track and disclose informants’ histories. Some now require judges to conduct pretrial hearings assessing informants’ credibility, or to provide cautionary jury instructions. Others mandate that informant testimony be corroborated. In New Jersey, a 2020 directive by the attorney general and a proposed rule under review by the state Supreme Court would enhance prosecutors’ disclosure requirements.
Those reforms, however, all define jailhouse informants narrowly: as incarcerated witnesses who obtain confessions while in custody. The rules impose no requirement to track or scrutinize any other type of incentivized cooperator. Only one of the six cases in which Deric Williams testified — in which he described Anderson’s jailhouse confession — would likely trigger those safeguards.
In Pennsylvania, a committee of experts convened by the state legislature, in a 2011 report, urged reforms that would extend to a full range of compensated cooperators.
“Testifying falsely in exchange for an incentive — either money or a sentence reduction — is often the last resort for a desperate inmate. For someone who is not in prison already, but who wants to avoid being charged with a crime, providing snitch testimony may be the only option,” the committee noted.
In the decade since, lawmakers from both parties have proposed some of the committee’s suggested reforms related to informants, and urged the state Supreme Court to act on its own to adopt safeguards. None of those proposals has passed.
In Philadelphia, Police Department reforms to reduce wrongful convictions have not included policy changes to regulate informants or the incentives they receive.
Krasner said his office is working on a digital case-management system that would enable lawyers to search discovery and transcripts for repeat players. He said there is no projected timeline for that system’s completion.
As to how to reexamine old cases tainted by cooperator testimony, there are no easy solutions, said lawyer Patricia Cummings, who headed the Philadelphia DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit and now oversees the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan.
“I think Philly’s got a particularly bad problem with it … but nobody’s really done that much about it,” she said. The exonerations so far, she said, are “just scratching the surface.”
At the same time, she said, the cases are not simple.
“We all know there are plenty of people out there getting paid or being given something — not from law enforcement after the fact, but from the defendant or the defendant’s family. There’s corruption on both sides,” she said. “So at the end of the day you have to figure out what other evidence is there and how can you make an assessment as to what’s the truth.”
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project’s legal director, Nilam Sanghvi, said that, for defense lawyers, even tracing out an informant’s history can be difficult, hinging often on the lucky discovery of a scrap of paperwork in a court file.
”You can’t just type [an informant’s name] into a database and figure out all the cases that he gave statements in,” she said.
Those convicted based on Deric Williams’ testimony face a particularly thorny path.
Even if Williams were to recant in court, judges view recantations as inherently unreliable.
And even with their newfound information on Williams, Hall and Satchell would have to show not only that the prosecutor improperly concealed Williams’ informant history, but also that the suppressed evidence probably would have led to an acquittal.
In Anderson’s case, Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi already ruled that Williams’ recanting affidavit was not grounds for a new trial. Citing a history of alleged witness intimidation by Anderson and his supporters, she wrote, “any recantations would be of so little weight as to amount to a nullity.”
In May, she heard testimony from three eyewitnesses who said Anderson was not at the scene of Steven Gates’ murder. Two were neighborhood men who had not wanted be involved in the murder case at the time; the third was David Satchell, who said he only learned Anderson was locked up for Gates’ murder when researching Williams in 2019.
But after a prosecutor introduced emails in which Satchell and Anderson offered to help one another, DeFino-Nastasi said that she found the testimony unbelievable and “rife with self-interest.”
“It’s very clear that these are guys who grew up together, who come from the same neighborhood,” she said, “who are all trying to help each other out.”