By Anna Birman
Jailhouse informant testimony is a leading cause of wrongful convictions all over the United States. Jailhouse informants, often known as “snitches” are inmates serving time in prison who claim to have heard a fellow inmate awaiting trial admit to being guilty of the crime they are charged with. Though jailhouse informant insight is sometimes valid and crucial toward building the prosecutions’ cases against truly guilty defendants, such testimony often results in innocent people serving time for crimes that they in no way committed. 17% of all DNA exonerations involved an element of jailhouse testimony, and when combined with accomplice testimony, jailhouse informants are the number one cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases.
These inmates are offered a variety of incentives to provide their often false testimony. Informants can be tempted with extra phone or television time, food privileges, leniency on their own cases, and sometimes even reduced sentences. Though the ruling established in Giglio v United States mandates prosecutors to disclose to the defense any promises of leniency or other incentives offered to the inmate, the prosecution can often get away with withholding such information if it was not explicitly offered to the inmate and instead simply hinted or implied. Moreover, in many states, the prosecution does not need to disclose the informant’s criminal history, how many other cases he has testified for, and what their relationship to the defendant is. These loopholes lead to a bounty of Brady violations and prevent the defense from building a truly just case in support of the defendant.
Though juries often find jailhouse informant testimony extremely compelling, the jurors are often not told key information that has the potential to greatly alter their final verdicts. Jurors often do not realize how common it is for detectives and investigators to feed false information to the informants, and they often fail to know how easy it is for an informant to steal informative legal papers or have someone on the outside do case research that provides details that seemingly only the perpetrator could know. Without knowing such key information, jurors are robbed of the ability to reach a just decision.
Luckily, this is an area of criminal justice that is really easy to reform with strong legislation, and the wheels of progress have truly started to turn in the last few years to aid in the fight against informant-based wrongful convictions. Firstly, jailhouse informant registries must be mandated on state and federal levels so that significant information about these informants, such as their criminal history and other cases they have testified for, can be tracked. States such as Oklahoma and Connecticut have recently passed such legislation, but it is crucial for these registries to occur on a federal level too. Next, pre-trial reliability hearings must be conducted so that judges can decide whether or not an informants’ evidence is truly reliable and thus necessary to present in court. Moreover, jurors must be clearly and fully instructed on the intricacies of jailhouse informant testimony so that they can reach a well-informed verdict. Jailhouse informant interviews should also be electronically recorded so that any implied or hinted-at incentives will be more visible to jurors. Lastly, prison conditions must be reformed so that inmates have less incentive to lie. By giving prisoners the ability to work a few extra hours or prove that they can exhibit model behavior to earn extra phone time, leniency, and other privileges, the incentive to provide false testimony greatly decreases. In such a system, only those inmates who have truly heard an incriminating claim will come forward.
Jailhouse informant testimony reform comes down to a combination of passing regulatory legislation and fixing the core reasons that inmates feel compelled to lie under oath. “Snitch” testimony thus provides us with insight about the mental toll that prison time takes on a persons’ psyche, for basic incentives like a bottle of soda become enough to encourage an inmate to fabricate testimony. Jailhouse informant testimony thus not only reflects how often we convict the innocent, but also how cruelly we often treat the guilty. We must focus on tackling both of these systemic issues in our justice system before true reform can occur.