Informants behind bars get new scrutiny and new laws

Connecticut Juvenile, Underage and Young Adult Defense
September 16, 2019
Whistleblowers and Confidential Informants
October 2, 2019
By Matthew Maddox / October 1, 2019

Connecticut is leading a nationwide effort to help prevent the tragedy of wrongful convictions.

Thanks to a flood of new scientific evidence that calls previous convictions into question, several states have passed laws to manage the use of prisoner testimony. In July, Connecticut was the first to enact a statewide database for jailhouse testimony and safeguards for using it responsibly.

Jailhouse informants often have ulterior motives for talking

Advocates for the Connecticut law cited the otherwise unconnected stories of two men who each served about 20 years before DNA proved neither was guilty of the murders that sent them to Connecticut state prisons. Each man was convicted with the help of an “in-custody informants.”

Police have long turned to cellmates and informants in order to build a criminal case. Certainly some “jailhouse snitches” provide reliable, truthful testimony, but the opposite happens too frequently, resulting in a wrongful conviction.

Why do informants sometimes lie? Both of the informants in the murder cases described above testified under oath that they had nothing to gain from testifying about the murders. However, one was subsequently released early, and the other had several charges dropped.

Transparency for jailhouse witness testimony

Although prosecutors must share information that could be helpful to the defendant, witnesses are partly shielded from disclosures about them.

The new Connecticut law is a major step in that direction. It establishes the nation’s only statewide tracking system of in-custody informants and includes anything of value offered to cooperating informants. It also entitles the defense to a pre-trial hearing on the reliability and admissibility of informant testimony.

A national effort to limit wrongful convictions

The movement toward such laws appears to be picking up steam, according to The Innocence Project which helps exonerate the wrongly convicted. Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and California have also passed laws addressing jailhouse testimony’s reliability.

Bogus jailhouse claims are one of the foremost causes of wrongful convictions, according to The Innocence Project. As of this summer, the project has exonerated 365 people using DNA evidence, and nearly one in five turn out to have been convicted with the help of informant lies. Our adversarial system of justice and the right to confrontation demands unfettered access to information about informants and what may motivate their testimony.