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 2019, Matthew Klaus died of a drug overdose while working as a confidential informant for Minnesota police. He was a recovering heroin addict who relapsed while working for the police; he was instructed to buy from the dealer who eventually sold him a fatal dose. His parents, John and Denise Klaus, are advocating for a new law that would protect recovering addicts like Matthew from being used as drug informants. See the Star Tribune story here: After son’s fatal overdose, Oronoco couple champion law reforming police use of informants. The proposed legislation is here.
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.”
This month Connecticut’s governor signed a new law that will establish the first statewide tracking system for jailhouse witness testimony. This measure will help improve transparency and weed out false statements from inmates who expect leniency or other benefits for their cooperation.
Each prosecutor’s office in the state will be required to maintain a record of the substance and use of jailhouse witness testimony and any benefits that have been or may be provided. The Governor’s Office of Policy and Management will collect the data from every office so that prosecutors can see if a potential jailhouse witness offered similar testimony in other jurisdictions and whether that testimony was reliable. If the prosecutor introduces the statements, previous jailhouse witness activity would be disclosed to the defense.
In addition, SB 1098 requires:
- Prompt disclosures of jailhouse witness evidence: Within 45 days of the defense filing a request, the prosecution must disclose specific evidence on jailhouse witnesses including: benefits offered for their testimony, their criminal history and other cases in which they acted as jailhouse witnesses.
- Pre-trial hearings: For rape and murder cases, judges must hold a hearing to screen out unreliable jailhouse witness testimony before it is heard by the jury.
posted by Michelle Feldman