Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed for the arson deaths of his three children based on shoddy forensic expertise and the testimony of a single jailhouse snitch. See this New Yorker article. Now the Innocence Project has uncovered further evidence that the prosecutor in the case–now a judge–lied about the informant’s deal. Here’s the story: New Evidence Suggests Cameron Todd Willingham Prosecutor Deceived Board of Pardons and Paroles About Informant Testimony in Opposition to Stay of Execution.
Today’s Akron Beacon Journal reports on new developments in the Neal Rankin murder case: “DNA results may give inmate a new trial.” The police had a lot of trouble identifying a suspect back in 1993–according to the commander of the homicide unit, they had “45 suspects the first day,” and murder charges were brought and then dropped against several defendants. Finally, over a year after the murder, the government charged Dewey Amos Jones with the crime based on an allegation from a jaihouse snitch that Jones had confessed to him. I include the story not only because it is yet another example of a shaky case built on compensated snitch testimony, but because it illustrates how powerful an informant’s allegations can be. Here, a jailhouse snitch got authorities to focus on Jones long after the crime, and without any direct evidence of his guilt. Jones is represented by the Ohio Innocence Project.
The most egregious cases of informant unreliability occur where an entire case turns on the testimony of a single compensated snitch. The dangers of wrongful conviction in this scenario are so obvious that numerous states have or are considering corroboration requirements. But informant testimony can produce wrongful convictions in another way, and that is by making weak cases look stronger than they are. For example, Florida Today ran a story last week (updated link) on the probable innocence of Gary Bennett. Bennett was convicted based on a now-discredited dog sniff expert and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch. Similarly, in the high profile case of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Texas man was convicted and executed for arson based on a combination of poor forensic science and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who later recanted. See previous post.
Such cases are not accidents. Jailhouse snitches are infamous for fabricating information about homicide and other high-profile cases, and offering the information to law enforcement without any solicitations or promises on the part of the government. In other words, the very existence of the case generates the bad evidence because of the general expectation in the offender population that such information will eventually be rewarded. This snitch testimony, however, makes the original case look stronger than it really is. This problem cannot be solved by corroboration requirements, since the informant’s information is automatically “corroborated” by the pre-existing weak evidence. Yet another reason to restrict the use of jailhouse informant testimony.
One of the central justifications for the use of compensated criminal witnesses is the idea that juries can evaluate informant credibility in ways that lead to fair and reliable outcomes. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that rewarding criminals for testimony is constitutional, relying in part on the procedural protections of discovery, cross-examination, and jury instructions. The idea is that the government can constitutionally reward its witnesses as long as the defense knows about it and the jury is properly instructed.
Recent psychological research throws some doubt on this idea. Dr. Jeff Neuschatz and a number of other psychologists published the following paper: The Effects of Accomplice Witnesses and Jailhouse Informants on Jury Decision Making, Law & Human Behavior 32 (2008): 137-149. They concluded that jurors who were told that a witness was getting a deal (and therefore had an incentive to lie) were just as likely to convict as jurors who didn’t know that the witness was being compensated. Moreover, the bare fact that an informant said there was a confession made the jury more likely to convict. From the article:
First, both college and community samples demonstrated that conviction rates were unaffected by the explicit provision of information indicating that the witness received an incentive to testify. Second, and consistent with the research on confession evidence in the courtroom, the presence of a confession, albeit a secondary confession, had a significant influence on mock juror conviction rates. More specifically, in every witness typeand across both college and community samples, mock jurors convicted significantly more often when there was a secondary confession provided by a cooperating witness than when no such witness had testified….
Even though the witness in the incentive condition had an enormous motivation to fabricate evidence (having been provided a situational incentive to testify), jurors appeared to ignore this information and render verdicts that were not significantly different across the Incentive and No Incentive conditions. The participants may not have recognized or considered the impact that an incentive might have on behavior and/or the willingness to provide accurate and truthful information. Furthermore, participants did not have significantly different ratings of truthfulness or trustworthiness across the Incentive and No Incentive conditions.
This is an important finding. The system assumes that jurors who are told that an informant is getting a deal will be less likely to believe the informant and less likely to convict. This study suggests not only that this isn’t so, but that just having a criminal informant testify to a confession significantly enhances the likelihood of a conviction.
The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission declared yesterday that Gregory Taylor was wrongfully convicted of murder, 17 years ago, based on a combination of undisclosed forensic evidence, flawed eyewitness testimony, and a jailhouse snitch. L.A. Times story here; see also here for details of the hearing. North Carolina is the only state to have created a governmental commission that directly reviews post-conviction innocence claims, although other states are considering it given the large number of exonerations in recent years. Several states (e.g. California, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin) have commissions to review the systemic sources of wrongful convictions and to propose reforms. See previous post.