The New Jersey Attorney General issued Directive 2020-11 which requires all state prosecutors to seek supervisory approval before using jailhouse informants. That approval process requires, among other things, the collection of comprehensive information regarding the proposed informant witness. Supervisors must satisfy themselves that prosecutors have met their discovery obligations, and that “there is independent, credible evidence corroborating the informant’s testimony.”
In an early test of Illinois’s new reliability hearing requirement, a judge held that three men would be permitted to testify at trial after vetting them in a pre-trial informant reliability hearing. All three alleged that the defendant had confessed to them while incarcerated. The judge based his ruling in part on his finding that “no deal, no promises, no inducements or benefits were made by the state.”
The Connecticut Supreme Court has long required a special jury instruction for jailhouse informants. As the Court has written, “a trial court must issue a special credibility instruction when a jailhouse informant testifies because such informants have a powerful incentive, fueled by self-interest, to implicate falsely the accused, and, consequently, their testimony is inevitably suspect.’’ Last month in State v. Jones, the Court extended that requirement to an informant who alleged that the defendant confessed to him years before, when neither of them were in jail. The informant happened to be incarcerated when he approached police with the information. The state argued that the special instruction should only be applicable when an informant alleges a jailhouse confession, but the Court concluded that the risks of fabrication “do not depend on the location where the alleged false confession occurs,” since the informant had the same motive to lie, and because “false confessions are easy to fabricate, but difficult to subject to meaningful cross-examination.”
Ramon Ward was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1994 based on the testimony of two jailhouse informants and sentenced to life in prison. Twenty-five years later, the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office in Detroit moved to vacate his conviction and he was released in February of this year. Story from The New Republic here: He Was Wrongly Imprisoned for 25 Years. It Wasn’t DNA Evidence That Got Him Out.
Of particular note, Ward’s wrongful conviction was secured in part because Detroit police went around the prosecutor’s office to obtain benefits for their informants directly from the judge. As one prosecutor actually observed during Ward’s trial, “promises of leniency are made to these snitches without approval—or prior knowledge—which exceeds police authority and violates our policies.” That same prosecutor worried about wrongful conviction: “I have been told,” he wrote, “that snitches do lie about overhearing confessions and fabricate admissions in order to obtain police favors or obtain the deals they promised.”
Ward was not alone: his wrongful conviction was part of a pattern of Detroit police practices in the 1990’s.
The Connecticut Supreme Court has decided that informant experts like myself are admissible when they can provide specialized information to jurors about informant unreliability, namely, information that jurors would not otherwise know based on common sense or from the popular culture or general media. The Supreme Court upheld the exclusion of my testimony in this particular case, but noted that such testimony is not per se inadmissible, and it imagined other scenarios in which expert testimony might be admitted. The 2019 case, State v. Leniart, overturned this 2016 decision, in which the Connecticut Court of Appeals held that the trial judge made a mistake in preventing me from testifying before the jury.
I explain what the Leniart decision means in more detail in this piece for The Appeal: Why Juries Need Expert Help Assessing Jailhouse Informants. In particular, I explain why jurors are unlikely to understand the full scope of informant practices, fabrications, and motivations to lie, and therefore would be helped by hearing expert testimony:
“Informants are highly motivated to give persuasive, believable testimony in exchange for their own freedom. They can also receive money, drugs, sex, food, and phone privileges when they cooperate with jail officials. Some scour the newspapers, pay other inmates for information, or get family members to pull court records so that they can come up with incriminating testimony against their cellmates. Some jurors may already know about these sorts of practices; many will not.”