Jail Informants And Wrongful Convictions

When DNA testing is used to overturn a conviction, it is natural to investigate why an innocent person had been put in jail in the first place. In 15 percent of those cases, critical evidence against the accused person was provided in the form of testimony from people who were given incentives to testify. Those incentives are often not presented to juries. Among the situations where incentives can lead to false testimony are those involving informants who are themselves serving jail time.

A person in jail is at the mercy of others in ways he or she has likely never imagined. When a prosecutor can offer you a lighter sentence or other benefit to make you situation better, there is a tremendous temptation to do what you are asked. Prosecutors don't offer inmates incentives to help exonerate innocent people. They want testimony to help put people in jail. The natural result is that inmates in jail will offer testimony that helps prosecutors, even if it isn't actually true. Concern over the use of jailhouse informants is growing.

Illinois is the first state to have taken legislative action over these concerns. In Illinois, courts are required to hold hearings concerning the reliability of the testimony offered before a jailhouse informant is allowed to testify. Washington is currently considering legislation to require judges to gauge the credibility of an "incentivized" informant before the testimony is presented at trial.

It is clear to many that the problem needs to be addressed. A report from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law found that jailhouse informants were the number one cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases in the United States. Without better safeguards to ensure that such testimony is accurate, more innocent people will find themselves in prison, some facing death sentences.


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