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Illinois Law on Informants Designed to Avoid Wrongful Convictions

by Betty Nelander

Anew Illinois law aims to bring transparency to the use of jailhouse snitches, which are the main cause of wrongful convictions nationwide and the cause of at least 17 wrongful convictions in that state alone.

Dubbed the “nation’s strongest jailhouse informant bill,” Senate Bill 1830 requires reliability hearings for informants. The legislation became law after the Illinois Senate and House handily overrode Governor Bruce Rauner’s July veto.

Reformers say the law will uncover whether the informant is being promised something beneficial in return for his or her testimony—something that would indicate the informant has an incentive to lie—and whether there is a history of being an informant.

In addition, “the measure requires a reliability hearing for jailhouse informants in cases involving murder, sexual assault, or arson,” nprillinois.org reports.

The feedback to the new restrictions has been positive.

“Criminal justice group The Innocence Project calls it a major step in reversing Illinois’ pattern of wrongful convictions. It says 17 innocent people went to prison based on the testimony of jailhouse informants,” reports nprillinois.org.

USNews.com says the “Illinois statute will require prosecutors to disclose their planned use of a jailhouse informant at least 30 days before a trial. In the past prosecutors have been known to disclose their planned use of jailhouse witnesses just days before the trial, leaving defense attorneys limited time to investigate the witness and their claims, says John Hanlon, the executive director of the Illinois Innocence Project, which supported the legislation.”
Hanlon told The State Journal-Register, Springfield, that these witnesses are “highly incentivized.”

“It’s no secret to any criminal defense lawyer or any judge or anybody else who pays any attention to the system that people ... who have their own legal criminal consequences at stake will lie in order to help themselves,” Hanlon said. “It’s been going on forever, and now I think we have a little bit better handle on the process.”

Wrongfully convicted individuals are among those who herald the legislation.

Marvin Reeves of Chicago, who spent 20 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit, was a victim of damage done by a jailhouse informant.

“Believe it or not, I still cry at night,” the exoneree told The Journal Star (pjstar.com). “I go to sleep, and when I wake up, I feel like I’m still in jail. And I’ve been home for 10 years. “It never goes away,” he said. “And believe me, believe me … I’d give every dime back … just to have my life back.” 

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Sources: pjstar.com, nprillinois.org, sj-r.com

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