GRAHAM: Justice system needs to reform its informant protocol

Column: Considerations of Crime

If 46% of wrongful death row convictions were attributed to a method of fingerprinting, there would be regulations or adjustments made. So why are we not regulating the use of criminal informants?

Those are the numbers. Approximately 45.9% of people who were exonerated after receiving the death penalty had been convicted based on the testimony of a criminal informant, according to a Northwestern Pritzker School of Law report

This means that the wrongful testimony of criminal informants, who had incentives to lie, is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. 

Jailhouse informants, in particular, have strong incentives to lie. Jailhouse informants are defined as “detained or incarcerated individuals who provide testimony — usually about how a defendant confessed to a crime — often with the expectation of receiving benefits.” These informants alone have been involved in 156 proven wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project

The jailhouse informant “system” works like a free market — criminals are incentivized due to the need for their service. "Jailhouse informants usually claim to officials that they heard their fellow inmates confess to a crime, and typically expect to be rewarded with leniency or other benefits,” according to the Innocence Project. These benefits include reduced sentences, leniency in upcoming criminal charges, special inmate privileges, assistance to family or monetary payments. 

Take, for example, the story of Steven Manning. Prior to his conviction, Manning was a stellar member of society. He was a Chicago police officer and an FBI informant, proving his accountability and dedication to the justice system. 

The system, though, failed him in 1993 when he was sentenced to death for the murder of his former business partner. 

His conviction was based on the testimony of a jailhouse informant, serving out a 14-year sentence for theft and firearms charges, on top of his 10 felony convictions to date. He testified that Manning confessed to the crime, and therefore had his sentence reduced to six years, and was released into the United States Federal Witness Protection Program (WITSEC). By 2004, Manning was cleared of all criminal charges against him. 

Jailhouse informants have very little to lose when testifying. They pose to gain excessively, through the benefits listed, but face almost no repercussions for false testimony. They also undergo minimal, if any, accountability processes. 

Connecticut is on the frontline of this issue, though. As of this September, the state government passed a bill that will implement a statewide tracking system on jailhouse informants, as well as specifying the procedure for introducing a jailhouse informant. 

The bill stated that, “if such a witness will be introduced, the prosecutor must disclose the complete criminal history of the jailhouse witness, as well as the cooperation agreement between the witness and the state official, no later than 45 days later than the filing,” according to Yale Daily News. With this, the defendant is able to request a pretrial reliability hearing, which the judge must hold if it is requested. This is crucial.

Reliability hearings examine the evidence presented in the case, and how supported a statement is by that evidence. The factors considered at these hearings would include: the informants criminal history, the deal for the informant’s testimony, the situation — including time and place — in which the defendant supposedly confessed to the informant, the same details about when the informant brought forward the statement and who was present for it, whether the informant ever recanted the testimony, a history of the informant’s testimonies in other cases and any other evidence deemed relevant.

Connecticut is now the first state to implement a bill regulating jailhouse informant use. With help from advocacy groups such as the Innocence Project’s local offices, this will hopefully begin a cascade of similar regulations in all states. The conviction of innocent people based on the statements of those with clear incentives for lying, and very few — if any — deterrents, should not continue to be the norm. 

The justice system is supposed to protect people against wrongful prosecution and conviction, not incentivize these exact harms. This is not to say that jailhouse — or more generally criminal — informants should not be permitted. It is undeniable that these testimonies, when accurate, are necessary to many cases and allow for the conviction of guilty parties. 

It is also undeniable, though, that there needs to be more regulation to prevent an epidemic wrongful convictions.


Jess Graham is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in  political science. Her column, "Considerations of Crime," runs on  alternate Wednesdays. 


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