Another common cause of wrongful conviction is the State’s use of, and the courts’ willingness to indulge, the testimonies of “snitches”—or witnesses who have some favor to gain by testifying for the state against a defendant. Often snitches will testify to “lighten [their] loads” (get reductions in sentences or better confinement conditions) or for monetary gain. Sometimes snitches have scores to settle with particular defendants. It’s a serious problem as Richard Gagnon’s case shows.
In 2005, a couple was murdered at their home in Horry County, South Carolina. Two weeks later, the police arrested the stepdaughter, Bambi Bennett and her boyfriend, Richard Gagnon. They were charged with murder and burglary. According to the police, there had been disputes between the victims and Bennett and Gagnon over money and custody of Bennett’s two sons from a prior marriage. Witnesses said Bennett and Gagnon were at the victims’ house the night before their bodies were found. Police said one of the victim’s blood was found on Gagnon’s shoe and one of Bennett’s boots that were found at the residence where Bennett and Gagnon lived.
In May 2004, the elected Solicitor dismissed the charges against Bennett for lack of evidence. The blood found on her boot was determined to be inconclusive by the state lab. It appears the blood on Gagnon’s shoe got there after the murders happened.
Gagnon went to trial. During the trial, a snitch—Robert Lee Mullins—who was in pre-trial detention with Gagnon, testified that Gagnon confessed to him that he committed the murders.
Gagnon testified on his own behalf at trial and denied the killing the victims. Defense counsel pointed out that DNA found at the scene did not match the profiles of either Bennett or Gagnon. The prosecution argued, though, that the DNA must have come from someone with Gagnon at the time of the murders.
Gagnon was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The police ultimately found that the DNA from the house belonged to Bruce Hill, an inmate who was convicted and sentenced in Tennessee for a home invasion. Hill was then charged for the murders in South Carolina. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life.
Four years later after his conviction, a lawyer for Gagnon filed a motion for a new trial on the basis that Hill said, in a prison interview, that he had never met Gagnon. An evidentiary hearing was held to introduce this evidence to the court, but Hill refused to testify. Gagnon’s lawyer, however, also presented the testimony of Robert Troy Taylor, a former inmate at Evans Correctional Institution where he was housed with Mullins (the snitch). Taylor testified that Mullins told him his testimony about Gagnon’s “confession” was false. Later, Taylor met Gagnon in a different prison where they attended Bible study together. They were playing cards in prison one day when Gagnon mentioned that someone named “Mullins” had been instrumental in having him convicted. Taylor put 2 and 2 together and realized the connection between the cases.
In January 2013, Judge Steven John granted Gagnon’s motion for a new trial and vacated his convictions. In February he was released from prison, and in April 2015 the case against him was finally dismissed by the prosecutor.