The law was sponsored by Senator Julie Daniels and Representative Chris Kannady, making Oklahoma the third state to enact jailhouse informant laws. Maryland enacted a similar law in April, and Connecticut did so last year.
The leading cause of wrongful convictions has consistently been the use of eyewitness identification (which includes jailhouse informants) and false confessions. In John Grisham’s book The Innocent Man, he told the true story of the wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, who were wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of Debbie Sue Carter in Ada, Oklahoma, in 1982.
While Williamson was in jail for writing bad checks, a jailhouse informant told authorities that he confessed to Carter’s murder. Fritz also was implicated in the crime, and they were both convicted by jailhouse informant testimony. Williamson was sentenced to death; Fritz was sentenced to life in prison. That same jailhouse informant had been used multiple times in other cases to secure convictions and had received substantial benefits — none of which was ever disclosed to the defense.
Seventeen years later, DNA evidence cleared Williamson and Fritz of the crime and pointed to Glenn Gore, who had committed other crimes while the two men sat in prison for his rape and murder of Carter. “Two innocent men and my family were devastated by unreliable jailhouse witnesses,” Carter’s cousin Christy Sheppard said. “The new law can protect the next innocent man and deliver justice that crime victims deserve.”
The law will require district attorneys to (1) disclose to the defense any deals or benefits to jailhouse informants for their testimony, along with their complete criminal history and previous deals for snitching, (2) create a central database of jailhouse informants and this information, and (3) file an annual report on the data collected by the database.
“Oklahoma is taking another major step in preventing wrongful convictions,” Kannady said. “Addressing unreliable jailhouse informants, in addition [to] passing eyewitness identification and recording suspect interrogations reforms last year, will protect the innocent and improve public safety.”
“Lifting the secrecy around incentivized testimony will protect innocent Oklahomans and victims of jailhouse informants’ crimes,” Vicki Behenna, executive director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, said. “Thanks to the leadership of Senator Daniels and Representative Kannady, this law promotes transparency to reveal the truth and prevent wrongful convictions.”
As a digital subscriber to Criminal Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login