It’s been said, “Don’t go to the pen, send a friend” or “If you can’t do the time, drop a dime.” But the informants who heed that advice often send innocent people to prison, according to a report by Dale Chappell in Criminal Legal News.
The report cites research on wrongful convictions that indicates a significant portion were based on false testimony of “incentivized witnesses” or “snitches.”
Publicly available data shows that informants have be- come law enforcement’s “tool of choice,” especially in drug enforcement. About 60 percent of drug defendants cooperate with law enforcement in exchange for reduced sentences, according to the report.
As prosecutors build their case against defendants, they have no incentive to fact-check informants’ testimony, said Loyola Law School Professor Alexandra Natapoff in her study, titled “How Snitches Contribute to Wrongful Convictions.”
While informants offer juries seemingly credible details about the crimes, defendants have no recourse to prove them wrong, according to the report.
The U.S. Supreme Court placed a requirement on courts to evaluate the reliability of expert witnesses (Daubert v. Merrel Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993)) because experts can be “both powerful and quite misleading.”
But there is no requirement of reliability for paid informants testifying unsubstantiated facts for the government, said the report.
In 2018, Kerry Porter, who spent 11 years in a prison, was paid $7.5 million by the City of Louisville, Ky., based in part on the false testimony of two jail- house informants.
Also in 2018, Lacquanda “Faye” Jacobs was released from an Arkansas prison after 26 years based on the testimony of an incentivized witness, who later recanted his story when he was arrested on charges of his own. The witness’ testimony was the sole evidence used to convict Jacobs, said the report.
In 2016, the National Registry of Exonerations found that 81 of 116 death penalty exonerations involved perjury or false testimony by incentivized witnesses, an increase up to 70 percent.
The Innocence Project found that 25 percent of DNA exonerations involved the knowing use of false incentivized wit- ness testimony, and 11 percent involved the use of coerced wit- ness testimony, said the report.
Also in 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation into both the Orange County District Attorney’s Office in California and the Orange County
Sheriff’s Department for an illegal jailhouse informant pro- gram.
Research by the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwest University School of Law said studies show incentivized witnesses lack confidence in themselves, crave attention, and have a need to feel important.
Studies conducted on informants on why they decide to cooperate with the government have come to the same conclusion: offered an incentive to do so, most people, even honest people, will lie in exchange for some benefit.