In Michael Connelly’s legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer, the defense attorney uncovers the dishonest history of a jailhouse snitch. In real life, safeguards against false testimony from jailhouse witnesses are few.
In Connecticut, there is progress. A new law makes each prosecutor’s office responsible for maintaining background on jailhouse witnesses, including a record of the “substance and use of their testimony and any benefits that have been or may be provided,” snitching.org reports.
“It’s important for prosecutors to have that information so they can assess whether or not this person is reliable,” said Michelle Feldman, the campaigns director at the Connecticut Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners.
The statewide jailhouse informant tracking system requirement is part of a bill signed by Governor Ned Lamont that became effective October 1, 2019.
“This is the first state in the nation that will have the information available for all prosecutors,” Feldman said.
“The Governor’s Office of Policy and Management will collect the data from every [prosecutor’s] office so that prosecutors can see if a potential jailhouse witness offered similar testimony in other jurisdictions and whether that testimony was reliable,” snitching.org reports. “If the prosecutor introduces the statements, previous jailhouse witness activity would be disclosed to the defense.”
SB 1098 requires disclosure of evidence by jailhouse witnesses within 45 days of the defense filing a request and to include benefits offered for their testimony, their criminal background and other cases in which they acted as jailhouse witnesses, and any benefits received.
And in cases of rape or murder, “judges must hold a hearing to screen out unreliable jailhouse witness testimony before it is heard by the jury,” snitching.org reports.
“Jailhouse informants have a strong motivation to lie so it’s important to have transparency at every level of the system,” Feldman said.
It’s hoped the new law will help prevent wrongful convictions. Consider the case of Miguel Roman, who was convicted in 1990 largely based on the testimony of a jailhouse witness. He served 19 years behind bars before he was exonerated by DNA evidence. In 2016, the state of Connecticut agreed to pay Roman $6 million in compensation, the Innocence Project said.
In another case, Alfred Swinton served 19 years of a six-decade sentence for a murder that he did not commit, based in part on the testimony of a dishonest jailhouse witness. Swinton was freed in May 2018 after DNA evidence was re-examined.
The snitch, meanwhile, had also testified in other cases. “It was far too easy for this jailhouse witness to lie and help send an innocent man to prison in his efforts to obtain leniency in his case,” said Cheryl White-Mink, Swinton’s niece.
Sources: snitching.org, ctnewsjunkie.com, middletownpress.com, innocenceproject.org
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