[The New York Times Magazine, 9 December 2007]
Gambling on inmate gossip
By RICHARD MORGAN
In April 2003 the Pentagon created decks of playing cards to be given to soldiers, all featuring wanted members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle. When he heard this, Special Agent Tommy Ray, a state law officer in Polk County, Fla., got inspired. Two years later, he made his own deck of cards, each bearing information about a different local criminal case that had gone cold. He distributed the decks in the Polk County jail. His hunch was that prisoners would gossip about the cases during card games, and somehow clues or breaks would emerge and make their way to the authorities. The plan worked. Two months in, as a result of a tip from a card-playing informant, two men were charged with a 2004 murder in a case that had gone cold.
In July of this year, the idea took off: all state inmates in Florida now have access to two different decks of cards, describing a total of 104 cold cases. In mid-October, based on a tip from an informant at the Columbia Correctional Institutional Annex in Lake City, the police arrested a man in connection with a Fort Myers murder in 2004. The informant requested no reward money. Plans are now in the works to make decks of cards for all Florida county jails. And police departments elsewhere in the country are instituting similar programs.
Jack Levin, a sociologist and criminologist at Northeastern University who has written a book on gossip, is cautious about declaring the cards a success. ''This is a clever experiment,'' he says. But to know if it works, he goes on, ''you'd need to put some fake cases in there, to know how the inmates respond to those. Right now, this will solve a case here and a case there, but at a huge cost of wild-goose chases, paperwork, false hope and even the possibility of false convictions.''
Of the 66 tips he has received, Ray says he is confident about 15 and excited about 4. ''These cases are cold,'' he says. ''Any information is better than no information.''
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