A jailhouse informant is rarely someone who just wants to help. Jails and prisons have a strong anti-snitching culture, so passing along information to prosecutors is a choice that could get you in serious trouble. People don’t inform on other prisoners to be solid citizens; they do it to get a break on their sentences.
As long as informants are offered a break for snitching, there will always be a strong incentive to say whatever the prosecutor wants to hear.
The United States Supreme Court has termed the use of jailhouse informants a “dirty business,” and therefore allows broad cross-examination and special cautionary jury instructions. But those remedies are often inadequate.
According to the Innocence Project, almost one in every five people who has been exonerated by DNA evidence was convicted based in part on a jailhouse informant.
But prosecutors insist that they get quality information from jailhouse informants that bring perpetrators to justice. Who decides whether they are credible and should be allowed to testify? And what information should be provided to the defense to give the defendant the opportunity to fully cross-examine the informant?
States requiring tracking, disclosure and evaluation
Several states have recently adopted new laws to rein in the irresponsible use of jailhouse informants. Mostly, they clarify that evidence about a jailhouse informant’s credibility must be turned over to the defense, along with information about what the informant is getting in return for their testimony.
Connecticut, Oklahoma, Utah and California additionally require jurors to be instructed to scrutinize the testimony of jailhouse informants.
Illinois has gone further than most. In November, lawmakers there overrode the governor’s veto to adopt a new rule that, if requested by the defense, judges must hold a pretrial inquiry into the veracity of the informant. If the informant is found not to be credible, their testimony won’t be allowed at trial.
25 years lost to a lying jailhouse snitch
One of the advocates for Illinois’ new law was exoneree James Kluppelberg. He was convicted, based primarily on the testimony of a jailhouse informant, of setting a fire in 1984 that killed a woman and her five children. Later, the informant recanted the story, admitting that he had made it up in order to reduce his prison sentence.
“I lost 25 years of my life because of his testimony,” Kluppelberg told the Associated Press. “I didn’t get to see my three children grow up. I did not get to go to my mother’s funeral. I did not get to see my sisters grow up. All these things were stolen from me.”
Even prosecutors admit they are skeptical of jailhouse informants, but they continue to use them with devastating results. It’s time for more states to recognize that their testimony is highly suspect, at best.